What Exactly is Double Jeopardy?
Just about everyone has heard the term “double jeopardy.” However, what does it really mean? Is it something that moves past tabloids and out of real-life courtrooms? Absolutely. In fact, one of the most critical protections provided by the Constitution is the guarantee that you can never be “subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” In other words, you can never be charged with the same crime of which you have been acquitted
But the law varies across the country when it comes to double jeopardy. Can you be charged a second time for a similar crime regarding the same incident you’ve previously been acquitted of? It may depend on a special “test.” Many states have adopted the so-called Blockburger test to determine if two statutes are similar enough that they constitute the same offense and would violate double jeopardy. In 2017, New Jersey joined the group of states that recognize this test.
The Blockburger test
First, what is the Blockburger test? In 1932, the United States Supreme Court considered how to identify whether two criminal charges were so similar that charging a person under both statutes would constitute double jeopardy. The court designed a straightforward test that is also known as the same-elements test. The test is simple; double jeopardy does not apply so long as each criminal charge requires proof of at least one factual element not required to prove the other. This means that two separate offenses could share multiple elements so long as they each had one unique element that wasn’t shared.
New Jersey Law and Double Jeopardy
Just last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court had the occasion to set a standard on double jeopardy. In New Jersey vs. Miles, the Court was faced with a case where the defendant was charged with multiple crimes relating to an incident where the defendant was arrested while in possession of marijuana.
In 2010, the defendant was arrested after attempting to sell marijuana to an undercover police officer. The defendant was charged with a warrant with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute near a school. After a grand jury indicted him on the two felony charges, the defendant’s case was set in Superior Court.
Defendant Miles received additional charges as well. He was also charged through a municipal summons with a disorderly conduct misdemeanor referred to as loitering to possess marijuana. The defendant then appeared in municipal court, pled guilty to the misdemeanor loitering charge, and filed a motion to dismiss his felony charges in Superior Court citing double jeopardy. In support of the motion, defense counsel argued that the Superior Court charges were barred by double jeopardy based on defendant’s guilty plea to the misdemeanor. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and he appealed. In applying a legal standard other than the Blockburger test, the Superior Court sided with the defendant. Consequently, the State appealed, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to decide both the fate of the Defendant’s felony charges and the standard under which New Jersey would test for violations of double jeopardy.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court applied the Blockburger test. In doing so, the Court ruled that the two charges were not the same offense and that double jeopardy had not been violated. The court reasoned that under the Blockburger test, each charge had an element that the other did not share. In the Court’s view, the loitering charge required evidence that the offense occurred in a public place, while possession of marijuana near a school zone required proof of intent to distribute the drugs within 1000 feet of a school zone. According to the court, these differences were stark enough to differentiate between the two charges.