Ask a lawyer to explain “sovereignty” and you’ll hear an elevated discussion of Enlightenment political thought, along with some name-dropping—Hobbes, Montesquieu, Madison. Ask Terance Gamble, and he will have a more concrete answer: 34 months of his life.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court will hear Gamble’s complaint in Gamble v. United States: If the Constitution protects against “double jeopardy,” what allows both the state of Alabama and the U.S. government to convict and imprison him for the very same crime?
In 2008, Gamble was convicted in Alabama state court of second-degree robbery, a felony. Seven years later, an Alabama police officer pulled Gamble’s car over. A search revealed marijuana, a digital scale, and a 9-millimeter pistol. Under both Alabama and federal law, felons are forbidden to possess firearms. He pleaded guilty to state charges and received a one-year sentence. In federal district court, Gamble was sentenced to 46 months, resulting in an additional 34-month term in prison that will end in 2020.
The Fifth Amendment says that no “person [shall] be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” At first glance, Gamble’s double sentences seem to violate that rule because the “offences” were the same—possessing the very same gun after the very same state felony conviction. The catch is that under the “separate sovereigns” rule, a defendant can be prosecuted by the feds and a state—or by two different states—for precisely the same crime. And, in Gamble’s case, there were two different sovereigns involved. By breaking Alabama’s “felon-possession” statute, Gamble “offended” the state of Alabama; by breaking the federal statute, he also “offended” the United States.