The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear an appeal from a former senator from Puerto Rico and a businessman, who are arguing that they should not face a retrial for an alleged bribery scheme.
The two men were originally acquitted in 2013 of violating a federal program bribery law. In its decision, the First U.S. Court of Appeals cited incorrect jury instructions, ABA Journal reports. The Supreme Court's decision to hear the case could affect how the double jeopardy rule of the Fifth Amendment is interpreted in the future, and we should all be wary that the Court does not move on the issue too quickly.
Double jeopardy protections have existed in the U.S. since 1791 as part of the Fifth Amendment and as part of James Madison's argument: "No person shall be subject, [except] in case of impeachment, to more than one trial or one punishment for the same offense." In adding these protections, the Founding Fathers were continuing principles already established by English common law, canon law, Greek and Roman law, and ancient Jewish law. The exact origins of double jeopardy protections are uncertain, according to USCivilLiberties.org.
The existence of double jeopardy laws in the U.S. protects the individual from the far greater resources of the state when said individual is prosecuted for an alleged crime. It protects the innocent who may be accused of crimes, and also creates the need for prosecutors to work at a high standard to get the verdict right the first time, as FindLaw notes.
Of course, courts are made up of people, and people are fallible. A perfect court system will never exist and double jeopardy protections have the potential of protecting guilty individuals.
In the case of Bravo-Fernandez v. United States, Juan Bravo-Fernandez, the president of a security firm, and Hector Martinez-Maldonado, a senator in Puerto Rico, were both convicted of committing crimes on a weekend trip to Las Vegas. According to SCOTUS Blog, Bravo-Fernandez paid for Martinez-Maldonado’s trip, as well as for boxing tickets a day after Bravo-Fernandez testified in front of Martinez-Maldonado about a bill he wanted to pass.
While the jury in the original case convicted the men of the bribery charge, they acquitted them of the charge of conspiring and traveling, which makes little sense, as SCOTUS Blog's John Elwood points out. But if the wrong verdict was reached and the rules of the court were violated during the first trial, that is not an indictment of double jeopardy protections. It is a statement on the fallibility of the justice system itself, and the possibility of incorrect verdicts.
A 5-3 decision from the Supreme Court on this issue would send a message one way or another, and the Court should proceed carefully. A 4-4 split, similar to the result of the March 29 Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association decision, would honestly be the best result for this case. While double jeopardy protections need to be enhanced to reflect modern challenges within the justice system, the basic principle - that no person should be subject to more than one trial or punishment for the same offense - needs to continue to be respected.