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United States v. Williams

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 16, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
v.
CHRISTOPHER LAVAN WILLIAMS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is before the court on Defendant Christopher Lavan Williams' Motion to Dismiss the Indictment. (Doc. # 19). In this case, the United States has charged Williams with being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). (Doc. # 1). Before he was indicted in this case, Williams was previously convicted in an Alabama state court of possessing the same firearm under Alabama's felon-in-possession statute, Ala. Code. § 13A-11-72(a). (Doc. # 19-1 at 4-6). Williams now seeks dismissal of this prosecution because he claims it violates the Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause, which guarantees that “No person shall . . . be twice put in jeopardy” “for the same offence.” U.S. Const. amend. V. Though there are strong arguments that the Double Jeopardy Clause as originally understood would bar this prosecution, Williams' argument is foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent. Unless and until the Supreme Court overrules that precedent, the United States is free to proceed with this prosecution.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Christopher Lavan Williams had several run-ins with the law prior to possessing the firearm that is the subject of this prosecution. According to the indictment in this case, the State of Alabama convicted Williams of second degree burglary in 2016, receipt of stolen property in the second degree in 2013, and first degree robbery in 2009. (Doc. # 1). Each of these offenses is a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year. (Id.).

         On December 1, 2017, Alabama authorities arrested Williams and charged him with unlawfully possessing a firearm in violation of Alabama's felon-in-possession statute, Ala. Code. § 13A-11-72(a). The arrest warrant and criminal information charged Williams with possessing a “Taur[us] 44 Special” pistol after having been previously convicted of first degree robbery, which is a “crime of violence” under Alabama's felon-in-possession statute. (Doc. # 19-1 at 1, 6). Williams pleaded guilty to the charge on April 17, 2018 and received a fifteen-year sentence (two years of incarceration to be served immediately, split with thirteen years of probation). (Id. at 4-5). Shortly thereafter, the Alabama Department of Corrections released Williams pursuant to the community corrections program. (Doc. # 22 at 2). Several weeks later, while on release under the community corrections program, Williams was arrested on a federal warrant for being a felon in possession of a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). (Id.). Williams' federal indictment and arrest were based on the same December 1, 2017 conduct involving a “Taurus .44 caliber revolver” that provided the basis for Williams' state conviction. (Doc. # 1).

         II. Analysis

         The Fifth Amendment's Double Jeopardy Clause provides, “No person shall . . . be twice put in jeopardy” “for the same offence.” U.S. Const. amend. V. Though the Clause's text apparently imposes an absolute prohibition on successive prosecutions for the same crime, the Supreme Court has read an important exception into the Double Jeopardy Clause. The same government may not twice prosecute an individual for the same offense, but two separate sovereigns -- for instance, a state government and the federal government -- may do so. See United States v. Lanza, 260 U.S. 377, 382, 385 (1922) (holding that a prior state conviction for making, transporting, and selling liquor did not bar a subsequent federal prosecution based on the same acts). The “separate sovereigns” or “dual sovereignty” doctrine, as it has come to be known, is controlling here. Under that doctrine, “[w]hen a defendant in a single act violates the ‘peace and dignity' of two sovereigns by breaking the laws of each, he has committed two distinct ‘offences.'” Heath v. Alabama, 474 U.S. 82, 88 (1985) (quoting Lanza, 260 U.S. at 382). Because Alabama and the United States are separate sovereigns, Williams' single act (possessing a firearm on December 1, 2017 while having a prior felony conviction) is “an offense against the peace and dignity of both” sovereigns and thus punishable “by each.” Lanza, 260 U.S. at 382. Unless and until the Supreme Court overrules Lanza and related precedents, the United States is free to proceed with this prosecution.

         III. Reconsidering the Separate Sovereigns Exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause

         There may well be good reasons for overruling the “separate sovereigns” exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause. Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case asking the Court to do just that. See Gamble v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2707 (2018) (granting petition for writ of certiorari). As explained below, the court agrees with the petitioner in Gamble: the Double Jeopardy Clause, as originally understood, bars successive prosecutions for the same offense, even when those prosecutions are brought by separate sovereigns. The Clause's text and the common-law backdrop against which it was enacted all contravene the separate sovereigns doctrine. Moreover, the separate sovereigns exception conflicts with core principles of federalism-including the seemingly “counterintuitive insight” that “freedom is enhanced by the creation of two governments, not one.” Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. 211, 220-21 (2011) (emphasis added). As one of the Nation's “inferior Courts, ” this court is bound by the Supreme Court's decisions, including the separate sovereigns exception to the Double Jeopardy Clause. U.S. Const. art. III, § 1. But, soon, it will be for the Supreme Court to assess the historical aberration that is the separate sovereigns doctrine and to determine if it is time to return to the original meaning of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

         A. The Text of the Double Jeopardy Clause Is Absolute

          The Double Jeopardy Clause's phrasing is absolute. It provides unambiguously that no person shall be “twice put in jeopardy” “for the same offence.” U.S. Const. amend. V. The Clause makes no exceptions based on the identity of the prosecutor: if two offenses are “the same, ” the Clause forbids successive prosecutions, regardless of whether the prosecutions are brought by the same government or different ones.

         The Supreme Court has long recognized that two crimes are the “same offence” if their elements are the same. That is, two separate statutory provisions create distinct offenses only if “each provision requires proof of a fact which the other does not.” Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299, 304 (1932). This common-sense understanding of the words “same offence” is the one the text of the Double Jeopardy Clause most naturally reflects. Any natural reading of “same offence” makes it difficult (if not impossible) to understand those words to exclude crimes that have the exact same elements but are prosecuted by separate sovereigns.

         Without question, the Clause could have been written to permit subsequent prosecutions for the same offense by separate sovereigns. In fact, one member of the first Congress proposed language that would have done just that. The original draft of the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibited “more than one trial or one punishment for the same offence.” 1 Annals of Cong. 753 (1789). Yet, Representative Partridge proposed inserting, after “same offence, ” the words “by any law of the United States.” Id. Partridge's proposal would have permitted the federal government to prosecute a defendant previously convicted of the same offense under state law or any law other than a “law of the United States.” Id. But the Partridge amendment was rejected and a Double Jeopardy Clause written in absolute terms was adopted instead. Congress's rejection of the Partridge amendment confirms what the Clause's plain text suggests: “same offence” means crimes with the same elements, regardless of whether those crimes are prosecuted by the same sovereign.

         B. The Original Understanding of the Double Jeopardy Clause Is Inconsistent with ...


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