Waller v. Florida

397 U.S. 387 1970

Case Summary

Facts : Waller was found guilty of two city ordinance violations in St. Petersburg, Florida: damage of city property and disorderly breach of the peace. The state of Florida later convicted Waller of grand larceny for the same crimes. The convictions were upheld by the district court of appeals.
The lawsuit was denied by the Florida Supreme Court. Because of the relatively limited question presented and its relevance in national jurisprudence, the United States Supreme Court consented to consider the case.

Issues: Is a municipality a separate government entity for purposes of criminal prosecutions?

ARGUMENTS :

Waller said that because the convictions stemmed from the same crimes, he was subjected to double jeopardy, which violated the Constitution.
The state of Florida maintained that the municipality constituted a distinct sovereign body and hence had the right to trial and punish individuals apart from the state.

DECISION : Chief Justice Burger delivered the opinion of the Court in the unanimous decision vacating the second conviction. The Court concluded that the municipal and state courts were merely parts of the same “sovereign.” As a result, the separate sovereign entity argument was a falsity.

  • Note : The Court has virtually set in stone the requirements for successive punishments for the same acts. The separate sovereignty argument is basically the sole exemption to the restriction on double jeopardy. To all intents and purposes, the United States has no independent sovereignties, with the exception of state and federal governments, and even that distinction is not absolute.
  • Waller is a potentially hobbling case for prosecutors. In order to eliminate the distinction between municipality and state for the purposes of double jeopardy, the Supreme Court requires prosecutors to choose which laws they desire to prosecute under. As a result, the punishment may be less severe under municipal rules, which are simpler to show, or more severe under state regulations, which are more difficult to establish.

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