Double Jeopardy as a Protection against Multiple Charges

A situation that sometimes arises in a Florida DUI case is where a driver pleads guilty to a misdemeanor DUI conviction and the State later decides that it would like to pursue felony charges.  This is much more than a technical or theoretical issue, there are defendants who have avoided felony Florida DUI charges by pleading to a charged misdemeanor.  Even though one’s conduct of driving under the influence may technically qualify as a misdemeanor DUI or felony DUI, the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy prevents a person from being convicted of both a misdemeanor and felony offense.  This means that if a driver pleads guilty to a misdemeanor DUI offense, the State cannot later decide to prosecute the driver for felony DUI.  The case of State vs. Witcher, 737 So. 2d 584 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1st Dist. 1999) provides a good example of this situation.

In the case of State v. Witcher, 737 So. 2d 584 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1st Dist. 1999), the driver was driving a vehicle when he collided with a telephone pole, which resulted in the injury of his two passengers.  The driver was charged with simple driving under the influence (DUI) by the county court, but the circuit court subsequently charged the driver with felony DUI.  The driver pled guilty to the misdemeanor DUI charge and moved to dismiss the felony DUI charge on double jeopardy grounds.  Double jeopardy in this context basically means that a person cannot be prosecuted for an offense in which all of the elements (essential facts that must be established) are contained within the definition of another offense.  This is sometime called a “lesser included offense.”

The court in Witcher dismissed the felony DUI charge, and ruled that the state could not pursue the felony charges based on the principle of double jeopardy.  The court upheld dismissal of the felony driving under the influence charges against the driver because the state was prohibited, on double jeopardy grounds, from pursuing felony charges in the circuit court after defendant had already pled guilty to misdemeanor DUI charges in the county court arising out of the same accident.  The point is that the state could not essentially punish the driver for the same criminal act under more or less the same charge with the only difference being the punishment.

Double jeopardy is a United States Constitutional protection that only allows a citizen in any criminal case to be prosecuted once for the same crime.  What happened in the Witcher case was that the defendant entered into a plea bargain with the State of Florida on the misdemeanor DUI charges so that the State did not have the right to pursue a felony prosecution for the same charge in a different court.  The difference in punishment between a misdemeanor and a felony is substantial so pleading to the misdemeanor strategically protected the driver from a felony conviction.  This strategic approach resulted in less exposure in terms of jail time, fines and other penalties.

There are many ways that a Florida DUI defense attorney can help improve the chances that you avoid a conviction or reduce the penalties and long-term consequences associated with a Florida DUI conviction.  If you are charged with felony DUI or misdemeanor DUI in Florida, we may be able to help you avoid the serious consequences that accompany a DUI conviction so call us today.


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