Epstein Case Raises Interesting Questions About Double Jeopardy

  • Jul 18 2019

If you have been following the news lately, you have probably heard about the arrest of billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. He was indicted in New York federal court on one count of sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking after an explosive series in the Miami Herald revived interest in his decade-old case. 

The United States Constitution prohibits the government from trying a defendant multiple times for the same crime, which is known as “double jeopardy.” So, one of the interesting legal questions raised by Epstein’s case is whether he can be tried in Federal Court in New York for what appears to be the same crimes he pleaded guilty to in Florida in 2008. 

What happens in Epstein’s case could have broad implications for criminal defendants accused of crimes in multiple states, or crimes that violate both state law and federal law

Florida’s Case Against Epstein 

In 2008, billionaire financier and sometimes Palm Beach resident Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to a state-level felony charge of solicitation of prostitution involving a minor and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars. He was facing both state and federal prosecution, but the federal prosecutor, Alexander Acosta — who until very recently was serving at the U.S. Secretary of Labor — agreed to a secret plea deal. 

Instead of being prosecuted for multiple federal child sex trafficking crimes that could have sent him to prison for life, Epstein pleaded guilty to a couple of state-level crimes. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail. He was allowed to leave the facility 6 days a week for work-release and only ended up serving 13 months. 

Epstein’s victims were not told about his plea deal until much later. Some of them didn’t know the details of it until Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown told them about it. Brown’s article sent shockwaves through the legal and political worlds and sparked renewed interest in the case from federal prosecutors. Epstein’s recent arrest is a direct result. 

The allegations against Epstein are truly heinous. But should federal prosecutors be allowed another bite at the apple just because people are upset and politicians are rattling their sabers? 

Double Jeopardy or Something Else?

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution says that no person shall “be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This provision prohibits the government from trying a defendant over and over again until a jury delivers the result the government wants. 

There is a lot of debate in the legal community about whether this provision, combined with the sweetheart plea deal Epstein’s lawyers negotiated, will prevent him from being tried again in Federal Court in New York. Unless there is new evidence of additional crimes, the answer is a bit unclear. 

This uncertainty is making a lot of people wonder if the plea agreements they have signed are worth the paper they are printed on. What is going to stop the government from bringing a copycat case in another jurisdiction sometime in the future if members of the public or some grandstanding politicians push for additional prosecution? It’s a question we must all consider if we want the protections provided by the 5th Amendment to last. 

My clients who are charged with weapons crimes, drug crimes, or sex crimes often face prosecution in both state and federal courts, so I regularly negotiate plea deals that cover both federal and state crimes. I will, therefore, be watching the Epstein case with great interest. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime in state court, federal court, or both, and you have questions about plea agreements, please contact the Valiente, Carollo and McElligott PLLC Firm to schedule a meeting

Posted in: Criminal