columnsCan you be prosecuted twice for the same crime?  The question seems simple and, given the plain language of the Fifth Amendment (no person shall “be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb”), seems like the answer should be a simple “no.”   Indeed, recent news that charges brought by the New York County District Attorney against Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the Trump presidential campaign, were dismissed on double jeopardy grounds appears to buttress that simple answer.  The real answer, however, is far more complex.

The prohibition on double jeopardy is a cornerstone of the American criminal justice system, memorialized in the Bill of Rights and dating back even earlier to the common law.  According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “[t]he underlying idea, one that is deeply ingrained in at least the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence, is that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity, as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent he may be found guilty.”[1]

Although the rule is well-established, its application often raises complex questions about constitutional law and federalism.  One such complexity arises when a person is charged separately by state and federal prosecutors for the same criminal conduct.  The Fifth Amendment prohibits successive prosecutions for the same “offence,” but not necessarily for the same conduct.  An “offence” is defined by a law, and a law is defined by a sovereign.  If there are two sovereigns, there are two laws, and therefore two “offences.”  In other words, “a crime under one sovereign’s laws is not ‘the same offence’ as a crime under the laws of another sovereign.”  This is the “dual sovereignty” doctrine, which, as the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed most recently in Gamble v. United States (2019), allows “a State to prosecute a defendant under state law even if the Federal Government has prosecuted him for the same conduct under a federal statute.”

Given the continued vitality of the dual sovereignty doctrine reflected in Gamble, why were the charges against Paul Manafort in New York dismissed on double jeopardy grounds?  The answer lies in the structure of our federal system.  While the Fifth Amendment does not prohibit a state from prosecuting a person who already was convicted under federal law, it also does not require states to permit such prosecutions.  A state may provide greater protection than the federal Constitution; thus, a state can bar double jeopardy in cases where the Constitution would not.  New York is one state that affords broader double jeopardy protections than the Fifth Amendment guarantees.  As the trial court wrote at the outset of its double jeopardy analysis in the Manafort case, “this is not a case in which defendant’s constitutional rights are at issue.”

Under the relevant New York statute, “[a] person may not be twice prosecuted for the same offense,” which includes separate prosecutions “for the same act or criminal transaction.”  N.Y. C.P.L. § 40.20.  In other words, the New York statute prohibits successive prosecution for the same conduct, which is broader than the term “offence” in the Fifth Amendment, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Prosecutors in the Manafort case conceded that the federal charges against him were based on “the same act or criminal transaction” as the state charges, but they argued that a statutory exception applied because “[e]ach of the offenses as defined contains an element which is not an element of the other, and the statutory provisions defining such offenses are designed to prevent very different kinds of harm or evil.”  N.Y. C.P.L. § 40.20(2)(b).  Mr. Manafort had been prosecuted for federal bank fraud, and New York prosecutors pursued charges for residential mortgage fraud.  The New York trial court held that “the harm or evil the federal bank fraud and the state residential mortgage fraud statutes were aimed at combating are the same” (preventing fraud and promoting economic stability), or at least “not of a very different kind.”  Thus, the trial court dismissed the indictment.  The Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the trial court’s order, observing that it was “undisputed that the federal charges of which defendant has already been convicted involve the same fraud, against the same victims, as is charged in his New York indictment.”  The New York Court of Appeals declined to hear the Manhattan DA’s appeal earlier this month.

Mr. Manafort is fortunate that the charges were brought against him in New York.  If he had been indicted in a different state without a double jeopardy prohibition as broad as New York’s, the Fifth Amendment would not have protected him.  So, in this instance, the answer to the simple question asked at the outset was far from simple, but it was still “no.”

Post-script:  In October 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law amending the double jeopardy statute to close what he called an “egregious loophole” by providing that “a separate or subsequent prosecution of an offense is not barred” if that person was granted a presidential pardon and had been employed on the president’s staff or campaign, related to the president, or the president was aided by the pardon or obtained a benefit from the conduct underlying the pardoned offense.  See N.Y. C.P.L. § 40.51.  This amendment was aimed at President Trump and his associates and family members, but it was passed too late to apply in Mr. Manafort’s case.

[1] Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184 (1957).