Myths Of The Criminal Justice System

Myth 1: You Can’t Be Tried More Than Once For The Same Crime

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This protection against “double jeopardy” is intended to prevent the government from retrying the same defendant over and over until prosecutors can get a conviction.

But there are some exceptions. First, the protection only comes into play once a jury has convicted or acquitted a defendant. So in trials that end with a hung jury or a mistrial, the prosecution can usually bring the same charges again. One particularly egregious example is Curtis Flowers of Mississippi, who has been tried an incredible six times for the murder of four people in 1996.

Myth 2: The Government Can’t Punish You For A Crime Without First Convicting You

Under federal sentencing law, once a defendant has been convicted of any federal crime, when determining a sentence, the judge can consider other crimes he or she may have committed. That includes crimes for which the defendant has never been charged and even crimes for which he or she has been acquitted.

In 2007 Antwuan Ball of Washington, D.C., was charged and tried for a long list of alleged federal crimes, including drug dealing, conspiracy, racketeering and murder. The jury was apparently unimpressed with the prosecution’s case. They acquitted Ball on all charges, save for a relatively minor $600 sale of half an ounce of crack. But last March, a federal judge sentenced Ball to 18 years in prison, a disproportionately long sentence the judge said was due to his disagreement with the jury’s decision to acquit on the other charges.

Myth 3: Ignorance Of The Law Is No Defense

Every introductory criminal justice class teaches this one. If you’re pulled over for speeding, you can’t claim you didn’t know the speed limit. If you’re pulled over while driving through, for example, in Virginia and the cop notices your radar detector, you can’t claim you had no idea the device is illegal in that state.

This particular “myth” is mostly true. And the problem is that it’s becoming nearly impossible to know what the law actually is. The U.S. Constitution outlines just three federal crimes — treason, counterfeiting, and piracy. Various projects have tried to count the number of federal criminal laws passed since, and many have simply given up. But by most estimates, there are at least 4,000 separate criminal laws at the federal level, with another 10,000 to 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally.

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