In 2015, Terance Gamble was pulled over by Alabama police officers for a malfunctioning headlight. During the routine stop, the officer smelled marijuana and searched Gamble’s vehicle. The officer found two bags of the substance, a digital scale, and a handgun. Gamble was charged with violating Alabama’s drug laws. He was also faced state and federal charges for being a felon in possession of a firearm. An Alabama state court sentenced Gamble to one year of jail time. Gamble petitioned the federal trial court to dismiss the firearm charge against him, arguing it violated the double jeopardy clause since Alabama already charged and convicted him on those charges.
The trial court rejected Gamble’s argument, noting that unless and until the SCOTUS issued a decision overruling it the trial court had to follow the separate sovereigns doctrine. Gamble was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison with an additional year of supervised release. Gamble appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, who upheld the lower court’s ruling and sentence. Gamble then petitioned the United States Supreme Court.
Under the separate sovereigns doctrine, the prohibition of double jeopardy on the same criminal offense does not prevent dual prosecution when the accused’s charges are put forth by separate sovereigns. SCOTUS precedent treats the state and federal government as separate sovereigns. Therefore, a defendant like Gamble can be prosecuted by a state court and then a federal court for the same crime (or vice versa).
The SCOTUS majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito noted the separate sovereigns doctrine was not an exception to the double jeopardy clause but part of it. This was because, the Court reasoned, the clause bars multiple prosecutions for the same offense not the same conduct. Because crimes are defined by laws, which are defined by sovereigns, in Gambles case there were two offenses of two different laws. Justice Alito also pointed out that the SCOTUS had affirmed this principle over and over again for more than 170 years.
Gamble argued the SCOTUS’s stare decisis on the separate sovereigns doctrine conflicted with the Founding Fathers’ understanding, as they ratified the double jeopardy clause. The SCOTUS rejected that argument.
The case is Gamble v. United States.