What is double jeopardy, and why is it important?

What is double jeopardy, and why is it important?

If you’ve seen any legal television drama, you’ve probably heard the term “double jeopardy” thrown around. Read on to find out what it means (it’s not a game show!) and why it’s important.

Double jeopardy definition

Double jeopardy means that no one can be charged and face prosecution for the same offense more than once (with a few exceptions). The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution contains the double jeopardy clause, and many state constitutions also protect people from being prosecuted for the same crime twice. Even if a state does not afford this right to defendants, they are still afforded this protection because the first 10 amendments of the Constitution apply to all state jurisdictions.

The double jeopardy clause contained in the Fifth Amendment is designed to protect the individual from “being subjected to the hazards of trial and possible conviction more than once… the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense.” The whole idea is that no one should face a constant threat of prosecution after their case has been adjudicated.

The concept of double jeopardy existed even before the U.S. Constitution was written, and is one of the oldest legal concepts in Western civilization, including Greek and Roman legal traditions. In English law, the concept developed over time with several different meanings. The clause was deemed essential to include in the U.S. Constitution.


There are several reasons why double jeopardy is important:

Successive prosecutions take a toll on the accused: A criminal prosecution can be expensive, psychologically damaging and can also affect the rest of a person’s life. Multiple prosecutions would prove damaging to a defendant’s well-being (financial, employment-wise and more).

The decisions of a judge and jury should count: If a jury acquits a defendant the first time, or a judge determines that someone is not guilty in a bench trial, that decision should count for something. A defendant can appeal, but prosecutors should only get one chance to prove their case, according to the Constitution.

Prosecutors’ power to charge individuals should be limited: Any penalties or plea deals that a defendant may face or make all rely upon which charges prosecutors decide to pursue in the first place. The idea that prosecutors have one chance to charge a defendant is thought to encourage better decision-making about what to charge a defendant with.

Eliminates judicial discretion to impose multiple punishments for a single crime: Defendants should only be punished once for a crime. The Fifth Amendment forbids judges from applying multiple punishments to the same criminal action.

The government’s power and resources could lead to endless prosecution: This is perhaps the most important reason for the existence of double jeopardy. The government generally has more assets at its disposal than a defendant does.

Prosecutors should not abuse those resources and harass a citizen with multiple trials, especially if the individual is found not guilty by a jury the first time.

It is your protected Constitutional right to be free from the constant threat of prosecution regardless of whether or not you have been involved in a criminal trial.