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Virginia Supreme Court Holds Convictions for Common Law and Statutory Involuntary Manslaughter Violate Double Jeopardy Clause

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Appeals for Virginia held that convictions for both common law and statutory involuntary manslaughter for the same offense violated the Double Jeopardy Clause and remanded to vacate one of the convictions.

A jury convicted Carroll Gregg Jr., of both common law involuntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter under Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-154, after he was found guilty of what he said was an accidental shooting that led to the death of a person who was repossessing his truck. Gregg moved the circuit court to dismiss one of the convictions, arguing it violated the U.S. Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause, but his motion was denied. The Court of Appeals, though, reversed, ruling that the convictions were duplicitous and unconstitutional. The State appealed, and the Supreme Court of Virginia agreed to hear the case.

Common law involuntary manslaughter is defined by case law as (1) the accidental killing of a person, contrary to the intention of the parties and (2) that the death occurred during the commission of an unlawful but not felonious act or during the commission of an improper performance of a lawful act. Similarly, statutory involuntary manslaughter, under Code § 18.2-154, is defined as an unlawful but not malicious act that results in death.

The Double Jeopardy Clause provides that no person shall be “twice put in jeopardy” for the same offense. U.S. Const. amend. V. This provision guarantees protection from a second prosecution for the same offense after an acquittal, a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction, or multiple punishments for the same offense.

In Blockberger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932), the U.S. Supreme Court developed a test, called the “Blockberger Test,” to determine whether seemingly duplicitous convictions violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. The key is whether each statutory provision requires proof of a fact that the other does not. The assumption is that lawmakers ordinarily do not intend multiple punishments for the same offense under two different statutes.

Lawmakers also may avoid this dilemma by expressly putting in the offense statute that multiple punishments apply for the same offense. See Code § 18.2-58.1, allowing other punishments in addition to the carjacking statute. Or lawmakers can expressly prohibit multiple punishments for the same offense. See Code § 19.2-294.1, prohibiting simultaneous DUI and reckless driving convictions for the same conduct. When a statute is silent on multiple punishments, legislative intent of the statute can reveal whether lawmakers intended for multiple punishments for a single crime. See Payne v. Commonwealth, 674 S.E.2d 835 (2009) (lawmakers intended capital murder statute to allow for multiple punishments).

The Court stated that the General Assembly did not distinguish “between species of involuntary manslaughter….” That is, both common law and statutory involuntary manslaughter “constitute one crime of involuntary manslaughter. The defendant’s mental state and his acts are the same for both” types of involuntary manslaughter.

The Court determined “under these circumstances that the General Assembly did not intend to permit simultaneous punishment for both common law involuntary manslaughter and manslaughter” under the statute. As such, the Court concluded “that Gregg was twice convicted and sentenced in the same trial of the same offense, namely, involuntary manslaughter, in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals with instructions to remand to the trial court to allow the Commonwealth to choose between the two sentences, and the trial court must vacate the other sentence. See: Commonwealth v. Gregg, 811 S.E.2d 254 (Va. 2018). 

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