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What is double jeopardy in criminal law?

The Bill of Rights provides several important legal protections for U.S. citizens. For those being investigated or charged with a crime, the most relevant parts of the Bill of Rights probably are the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth amendments. These amendments contain several limitations on the government’s power with respect to criminal suspects that have remained largely intact since becoming the law of the land in 1791.

The Fifth Amendment may be best known for the “right to remain silent,” the protection against forcing suspects to be a witness against themselves. But the amendment contains a number of important civil rights, including the Double Jeopardy Clause.

This clause is not about a game show. Instead, it prevents prosecutors from charging you twice for the same alleged crime.

When a defendant is on trial, he or she is in jeopardy of being found guilty and punished. After certain things occur, jeopardy is terminated, and authorities cannot pursue charges based on the same matter as the first round. In general, those instances are:

  • After an acquittal
  • After a dismissal
  • After a mistrial
  • On appeal after conviction

A dismissal for insufficient evidence generally bars reprosecution, but when the court dismissed the charges for another reason, jeopardy likely continues. The Supreme Court has ruled that jeopardy is not terminated when the dismissal is not related to the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

A mistrial occurs when the judge finds that it is impracticable or impossible for trial to conclude. Perhaps the most common reason for a mistrial is when the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict.

In some cases, double jeopardy can be a defense to criminal charges. A criminal defense attorney can explain how the concept may impact your case.

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