What is Double Jeopardy? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson we will learn about the meaning of double jeopardy. We will take a closer look at the term is defined in various countries and applied here in the United States of America.


Double jeopardy is a criminal procedural defense that prevents a criminal defendant from being tried for the same criminal act twice after an acquittal or conviction. A procedural defense can be raised despite not having anything to do with the substance of the criminal act or the individual's guilt or innocence.


The double jeopardy protection exists for several reasons. First, it prevents the government from using their seemingly unlimited resources to attempt to bring to court innocent individuals multiple times until the government gets a conviction. An example of this could be a man who is accused of punching his wife who is found not guilty after a jury trial. This would prevent the prosecutor from charging the defendant over and over until he is finally found guilty.

Secondly, it protects people from the social and financial costs of multiple proceedings. A court process is expensive: the costs of hiring a lawyer, the emotional costs on the defendant and that person's family and the funds that have to be paid to the court can all add up. The double jeopardy defense protects the person from these emotional and financial costs.

Lastly, it minimizes judges being able to punish defendants multiple times for the same crimes. For example, if a judge sentenced a man who was accused of punching his wife, this would prevent the same judge from sentencing him twice for the same action.


If a defendant claims double jeopardy in court, the attorney will put evidence in front of the court to review if the claim is accurate. The court will consider documents and facts from both proceedings in making the determination. Some of the documents the court may review would be police reports from the act, doctor evaluations and paperwork from prior court proceedings.

Worldwide Application

All member countries of the Council of Europe have signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. This is an international treaty to protect fundamental and procedural freedoms in Europe. The Seventh Protocol to the Convention, Article Four, states, 'No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again in criminal proceedings under the jurisdiction of the same State for an offense for which he or she has already been finally acquitted or convicted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of that State.'


Most of the member states also added the second provision, 'The provisions of the preceding paragraph shall not prevent the reopening of the case in accordance with the law and penal procedure of the State concerned, if there is evidence of new or newly discovered facts, or if there has been a fundamental defect in the previous proceedings, which could affect the outcome of the case.'

With all of the countries signing this document, it is just like signing a contract - such as to buy a car. When signing on that 'dotted line,' the person buying the car is making a promise to make the payments. When all of the countries signed this document, they were promising not to subject people to double jeopardy.

In several countries, including the United States, the guarantee against double jeopardy is a constitutional right. In many other countries it is a statutory - or legislative - law.

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