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

After consideration of all the questions before us, we find no bar to our decision of the double jeopardy issue. On the merits, we hold that the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment is applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, and we reverse petitioner's conviction for larceny.

  1. At the outset of this case we are confronted with a jurisdictional problem. If the error specified in the original writ of certiorari were found to affect only petitioner's larceny conviction,[fn2] reversal of that conviction would not require the State to change the terms of Page 788 petitioner's confinement. Whatever the status of his sentence on the larceny conviction, petitioner would probably stay in prison until he had served out his sentence for burglary.[fn3] Is there, in these circumstances, a live "case" or "controversy" suitable for resolution by this Court, or is the issue moot? Is petitioner asking for an advisory opinion on an abstract or hypothetical question? The answer to these questions is crucial, for it is well settled that federal courts may act only in the context of a justiciable case or controversy. Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346 (1911); see Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 94-97 (1968).

    The language used in a number of this Court's opinions might be read to indicate that the existence of a valid concurrent sentence removes the necessary elements of a justiciable controversy. The "concurrent sentence doctrine" took root in this country quite early, although its earliest manifestations occurred in slightly different contexts. In Locke v. United States, 7 Cranch 339 (1813), a cargo belonging to the plaintiff in error had been condemned under a libel containing 11 counts. Chief Justice John Marshall speaking for the Court, found it unnecessary to consider Locke's challenges to all 11 counts. He declared, simply enough, "The Court however, is of opinion, that the 4th count is good, and this renders it unnecessary to decide on the other." Id., at 344. Similar reasoning was later applied in a case where a single general sentence rested on convictions under several counts of an indictment. Drawing upon some English cases and some dicta from Lord Mansfield,[fn4] the Court in Claassen v. United States, 142 U.S. 140, 146 Page 789 (1891), held that if the defendant had validly been convicted on any one count "the other counts need not be considered." The most widely cited application of this approach to cases where concurrent sentences, rather than a single general sentence, have been imposed is Hirabayashi v. United States, 320 U.S. 81 (1943). In that case the defendant had been found guilty of two different offenses and had received concurrent three-month sentences. He challenged the constitutionality of both convictions, but this Court affirmed the lower court's judgment after considering and rejecting only one of his challenges. Since the conviction on the second count was valid, the Court found it "unnecessary" to consider the challenge to the first count. Id., at 85, 105.

    The concurrent sentence doctrine has been widely, if somewhat haphazardly, applied in this Court's decisions. At times the Court has seemed to say that the doctrine raises a jurisdictional bar to the consideration of counts under concurrent sentences. Some opinions have baldly declared that judgments of conviction "must be upheld" if any one count was good. Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109, 115 (1959); see United States v. Gainey, 380 U.S. 63, 65 (1965). In other cases the Court has chosen somewhat weaker language, indicating only that a judgment "may be affirmed if the conviction on either count is valid." Roviaro v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 59, n. 6 (1957). And on at least one occasion, the Court has ignored the rule entirely and decided an issue that affected only one count, even though there were concurrent sentences. Putnam v. United States, 162 U.S. 687 (1896).

    One can search through these cases, and related ones, without finding any satisfactory explanation for the concurrent sentence doctrine. See United States v. Hines, 256 F.2d 561, 562-563 (C.A. 2d Cir. 1958). But whatever the underlying justifications for the doctrine, Page 790 it seems clear to us that it cannot be taken to state a jurisdictional rule. See Yates v. United States, 355 U.S. 66, 75-76 (1957); Putnam v. United States, supra. Moreover, whatever may have been the approach in the past, our recent decisions on the question of mootness in criminal cases make it perfectly clear that the existence of concurrent sentences does not remove the elements necessary to create a justiciable case or controversy.

    In Sibron v. New York, 392 U.S. 40 (1968), we held that a criminal case did not become moot upon the expiration of the sentence imposed. We noted "the obvious fact of life that most criminal convictions do in fact entail adverse collateral legal consequences." Id., at 55. We concluded that the mere possibility of such collateral consequences was enough to give the case the "impact of actuality" which was necessary to make it a justiciable case or controversy. Sibron and a number of other recent cases have canvassed the possible adverse collateral effects of criminal convictions,[fn5] and we need not repeat that analysis here. It is enough to say that there are such possibilities in this case. For example, there are a few States which consider all prior felony convictions for the purpose of enhancing sentence under habitual criminal statutes, even if the convictions actually constituted only separate counts in a single indictment tried on the same day.[fn6] Petitioner might some day in one of these States have both his larceny and burglary convictions counted against him. Although this possibility Page 791 may well be a remote one, it is enough to give this case an adversary cast and make it justiciable. Moreover, as in Sibron, both of petitioner's convictions might some day be used to impeach his character if put in issue at a future trial. Although petitioner could explain that both convictions arose out of the same transaction, a jury might not be able to appreciate this subtlety.

    We cannot, therefore, say that this Court lacks jurisdiction to decide petitioner's challenge to his larceny conviction. It may be that in certain circumstances a federal appellate court, as a matter of discretion, might decide (as in Hirabayashi) that it is "unnecessary" to consider all the allegations made by a particular party.[fn7] The concurrent sentence rule may have some continuing validity as a rule of judicial convenience. That is not a subject we must canvass today, however. It is sufficient for present purposes to hold that there is no jurisdictional bar to consideration of challenges to multiple convictions, even though concurrent sentences were imposed.