Denezpi v. United States (U.S. Supreme Court, June 2022)

The Federal Docket

June 29, 2022

Merle Denezpi pled guilty to violations of tribal law under the Ute Mountain Ute Code in a CFR Court. He was then indicted on a federal charge for the same conduct six months later. Denezpi moved to dismiss the federal indictment, claiming it was in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause, but  the District Court denied his motion. He was ultimate convicted and sentenced to an additional 360 months of incarceration. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court also affirmed. The Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits successive prosecutions for the same offense, but not for the same conduct. Offenses defined by separate sovereigns are separate offenses and can therefore be separately prosecuted, even if their elements are identical and the same entity, in this case the federal government, prosecuted both offenses.

The Double Jeopardy Clause considers only whether the offenses themselves are the same, and “because the sovereign source of a law is an inherent and distinctive feature of the law itself, an offense defined by one sovereign is necessarily a different offense from that of another sovereign.. Here, the defendant had been prosecuted by the federal government for terroristic threats, assault and battery, and false imprisonment under tribal law, and this did not preclude a subsequent prosecution by the federal government for aggravated sexual abuse.

Justice Gorsuch dissented, noting that the CFR court that prosecuted Denezpi drew its authority directly from the federal government and had a long history of subjugating, not acknowledging the sovereignty of, the native tribes. Justices Sotomayor and Kagan joined this part of his dissent, but did not join Justice Gorsuch’s assertion that Denezpi had not initially been prosecuted for a tribal offense at all but rather for a federal regulatory offense.

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
Opinion by Barrett, joined by Roberts, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, and Kavanaugh
Dissent by Gorsuch, joined in part by Sotomayor and Kagan

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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