Why International Double Jeopardy Is a Bad Idea

In a recent post, I argued that U.S. authorities investigating British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) should consider criminally prosecuting GSK but partially offsetting any attendant penalty in light of the $490 million fine already imposed by China. This option is only available to the DOJ, though, because it stands on one side of a crucial divide in the global anticorruption regime: the U.S. — unlike Canada, the U.K., and the European Union — does not recognize an international variant of ne bis in idem (“not twice for the same thing”) (also known as “international double jeopardy”).

Recognizing an international double jeopardy bar can have a dramatic impact on a country’s capacity to combat international corruption. For countries like the U.K., being second-in-line to target an instance of transnational bribery often means not being able to prosecute the conduct at all. (For example, in 2011, the U.K. had to forego criminal sanctions against DePuy International because the U.S. had already prosecuted the British subsidiary.) In recent years, though, a spike in the number of parallel and successive international prosecutions has inspired a small but growing chorus of commentators calling for countries like the U.S. to formally embrace international double jeopardy.

To these commentators’ credit, many of their arguments sound in basic notions of fairness: you shouldn’t punish someone twice for the same crime. But before we jump on the double jeopardy bandwagon, I want to spend a few minutes explaining why, when it comes to the global fight against transnational bribery, double jeopardy probably isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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