LAWS PAGES

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U.S. Supreme Court
BENTON v. MARYLAND, 395 U.S. 784 (1969)

  1. In 1937, this Court decided the landmark case of Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319. Palko, although indicted for first-degree murder, had been convicted of murder in the second degree after a jury trial in a Connecticut state court. The State appealed and won a new trial. Palko argued that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated, as against the States, the Fifth Amendment requirement that no person "be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb." The Court disagreed. Federal double jeopardy standards were not applicable against the States. Only when a kind of jeopardy subjected a defendant to "a hardship so acute and shocking that our polity will not endure it," id., at 328, did the Fourteenth Amendment apply. The order Page 794 for a new trial was affirmed. In subsequent appeals from state courts, the Court continued to apply this lesser Palko standard. See, e. g., Brock v. North Carolina, 344 U.S. 424 (1953).

    Recently, however, this Court has "increasingly looked to the specific guarantees of the [Bill of Rights] to determine whether a state criminal trial was conducted with due process of law." Washington v. Texas, 388 U.S. 14, 18 (1967). In an increasing number of cases, the Court "has rejected the notion that the Fourteenth Amendment applies to the States only a `watered-down, subjective version of the individual guarantees of the Bill of Rights. . . .'" Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 10-11 (1964).[fn12] Only last Term we found that the right to trial by jury in criminal cases was "fundamental to the American scheme of justice," Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 149 (1968), and held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.[fn13] For the same reasons, we today find that the double jeopardy prohibition of the Fifth Amendment represents a fundamental ideal in our constitutional heritage, and that it should apply to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. Insofar as it is inconsistent with this holding, Palko v. Connecticut is overruled.

    Palko represented an approach to basic constitutional rights which this Court's recent decisions have rejected. It was cut of the same cloth as Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), the case which held that a criminal defendant's right to counsel was to be determined by deciding in each case whether the denial of that right was "shocking to the universal sense of justice." Id., at 462. It Page 795 relied upon Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78 (1908), which held that the right against compulsory self-incrimination was not an element of Fourteenth Amendment due process. Betts was overruled by Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Twining, by Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1 (1964). Our recent cases have thoroughly rejected the Palko notion that basic constitutional rights can be denied by the States as long as the totality of the circumstances does not disclose a denial of "fundamental fairness." Once it is decided that a particular Bill of Rights guarantee is "fundamental to the American scheme of justice," Duncan v. Louisiana, supra, at 149, the same constitutional standards apply against both the State and Federal Governments. Palko's roots had thus been cut away years ago. We today only recognize the inevitable.

    The fundamental nature of the guarantee against double jeopardy can hardly be doubted. Its origins can be traced to Greek and Roman times, and it became established in the common law of England long before this Nation's independence.[fn14] See Bartkus v. Illinois, 359 U.S. 121, 151-155 (1959) (BLACK, J., dissenting). As with many other elements of the common law, it was carried into the jurisprudence of this Country through the medium of Blackstone, who codified the doctrine in his Commentaries. "[T]he plea of autrefoits acquit, or a former acquittal," he wrote, "is grounded on this universal maxim of the common law of England, that no man is to be brought into jeopardy of his life more than once for the same offence."[fn15] Today, every State incorporates some form of the prohibition in its constitution or common law.[fn16] As this Court put it in Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184, 187-188 (1957), "[t]he underlying Page 796 idea, one that is deeply ingrained in at least the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence, is that the State with all its resources and power should not be allowed to make repeated attempts to convict an individual for an alleged offense, thereby subjecting him to embarrassment, expense and ordeal and compelling him to live in a continuing state of anxiety and insecurity, as well as enhancing the possibility that even though innocent he may be found guilty." This underlying notion has from the very beginning been part of our constitutional tradition. Like the right to trial by jury, it is clearly "fundamental to the American scheme of justice." The validity of petitioner's larceny conviction must be judged, not by the watered-down standard enunciated in Palko, but under this Court's interpretations of the Fifth Amendment double jeopardy provision.
  2. It is clear that petitioner's larceny conviction cannot stand once federal double jeopardy standards are applied. Petitioner was acquitted of larceny in his first trial. Because he decided to appeal his burglary conviction, he is forced to suffer retrial on the larceny count as well. As this Court held in Green v. United States, supra, at 193-194, "[c]onditioning an appeal of one offense on a coerced surrender of a valid plea of former jeopardy on another offense exacts a forfeiture in plain conflict with the constitutional bar against double jeopardy."

    Maryland argues that Green does not apply to this case because petitioner's original indictment was absolutely void. One cannot be placed in "jeopardy" by a void indictment, the State argues. This argument sounds a bit strange, however, since petitioner could quietly have served out his sentence under this "void" indictment had he not appealed his burglary conviction. Only by accepting the option of a new trial could the indictment Page 797 be set aside; at worst the indictment would seem only voidable at the defendant's option, not absolutely void. In any case, this argument was answered here over 70 years ago in United States v. Ball, 163 U.S. 662 (1896). In that case Millard Fillmore Ball was indicted, together with two other men, for the murder of one William T. Box in the Indian Territory. He was acquitted and his codefendants were convicted. They appealed and won a reversal on the ground that the indictment erroneously failed to aver the time or place of Box's death. All three defendants were retried, and this time Ball was convicted. This Court sustained his double jeopardy claim, notwithstanding the technical invalidity of the indictment upon which he was first tried. The Court refused to allow the Government to allege its own error to deprive the defendant of the benefit of an acquittal by a jury. Id., at 667-668. "[A]lthough the indictment was fatally defective, yet, if the court had jurisdiction of the cause and of the party, its judgment is not void, but only voidable by writ of error . . .," and the Government could not have the acquittal set aside over the defendant's objections. Id., at 669-670. This case is totally indistinguishable. Petitioner was acquitted of larceny. He has, under Green, a valid double jeopardy plea which he cannot be forced to waive. Yet Maryland wants the earlier acquittal set aside, over petitioner's objections, because of a defect in the indictment. This it cannot do. Petitioner's larceny conviction cannot stand.
  3. Petitioner argues that his burglary conviction should be set aside as well. He contends that some evidence, inadmissible under state law in a trial for burglary alone, was introduced in the joint trial for both burglary and larceny, and that the jury was prejudiced by this evidence.[fn17] Page 798 This question was not decided by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals because it found no double jeopardy violation at all. It is not obvious on the face of the record that the burglary conviction was affected by the double jeopardy violation. To determine whether there is in fact any such evidentiary error, we would have to explore the Maryland law of evidence and the Maryland definitions of larceny and burglary, and then examine the record in detail. We do not think that this is the kind of determination we should make unaided by prior consideration by the state courts.[fn18] Accordingly, we think it "just under the circumstances," 28 U.S.C. § 2106, to vacate the judgment below and remand for consideration of this question. The judgment is vacated and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.