Most people who were asked what “Double Jeopardy” is, would think it has something to do with the TV game show. Not exactly. OK – to be fair, you’d probably need to have taken at least one college-level course in criminal justice or pre-law, to understand the answer.
What the answer has to do with, is the U.S. Constitution‘s prohibition on a person being tried twice or punished twice for the same crime. This clause in the Constitution is known as the “Double Jeopardy Clause,” which is found in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. In other words, you can’t be charged with a crime, acquitted or convicted, then tried again for the exact same crime. The framers of our Constitution intended for this protection, against potentially overzealous government prosecutors.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) released a decision yesterday, clarifying this principle. In case you think that cases like this always involve murder or such, they don’t. In this case, the crime involved possession of an unlicensed gun; importantly, not use of the gun, just possession of it. Not exactly shoplifting, but not the worst crime under the sun, either – not compared to what I’ve seen, as a Dedham, Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer. In the case the SJC reviewed, a man had been arrested for illegal possession of a firearm, a Massachusetts gun & firearms offense. The police charged him with both illegal possession of a loaded gun, and illegal possession of ammunition – even though the only bullets he was in possession of were in the gun itself. He wasn’t, for example, carrying an extra supply of bullets. Prosecutors had argued that since more than one bullet was found in the gun, a jury could “reasonably” conclude that some of the bullets could satisfy the charge of carrying an unlicensed, loaded gun and the other bullets could be “used” to reach the additional ammunition charge.
That reasoning missed the bulls-eye, according to the SJC. The court ruled yesterday that people arrested for Massachusetts gun offenses cannot be tried for both unlicensed possession of a loaded gun and illegal possession of ammunition, ruling that these dual charges violate the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy. Quoting from the court’s decision, which was opinion written by Justice Francis X. Spina, “The Commonwealth has cited no authority to support this proposition, and we decline to draw such a distinction where, as here, all of the ammunition was loaded in the revolver. “We conclude that the defendant’s convictions of unlawful possession of ammunition and unlawful possession of a loaded firearm are duplicative, and his separate sentences for each crime violated the double jeopardy clause because he was punished twice for possession of the same ammunition.”
This decision isn’t important because a great deal of people are running around with unlicensed firearms (though, obviously, there are those who do.) The ruling’s importance stems from the reinforcement of the principle that the government cannot use “creative” methods to skirt the constitutional ban on double jeopardy.