Acquittal by the Trial Judge.
When a trial judge acquits a defendant, that action concludes the matter to the same extent that acquittal by jury verdict does.105 There is no possibility of retrial for the same offense.106 But it may be difficult at times to determine whether the trial judge’s action was in fact an acquittal or whether it was a dismissal or some other action, which the prosecution may be able to appeal or the judge may be able to reconsider.107 The question is “whether the ruling of the judge, whatever its label, actually represents a resolution, correct or not, of some or all of the factual elements of the offense charged.”108 Thus, an appeal by the government was held barred in a case in which the deadlocked jury had been discharged, and the trial judge had granted the defendant’s motion for a judgment of acquittal under the appropriate federal rule, explicitly based on the judgment that the government had not proved facts constituting the offense.109 Even if, as happened in Sanabria v. United States,110 the trial judge erroneously excludes evidence and then acquits on the basis that the remaining evidence is insufficient to convict, the judgment of acquittal produced thereby is final and unreviewable.111
Some limited exceptions exist with respect to the finality of trial judge acquittal. First, because a primary purpose of the Due Process Clause is the prevention of successive trials and not of prosecution appeals per se, it is apparently the case that, if the trial judge permits the case to go to the jury, which convicts, and the judge thereafter enters a judgment of acquittal, even one founded upon his belief that the evidence does not establish guilt, the prosecution may appeal, because the effect of a reversal would be not a new trial but reinstatement of the jury’s verdict and the judgment thereon.112 Second, if the trial judge enters or grants a motion of acquittal, even one based on the conclusion that the evidence is insufficient to convict, then the prosecution may appeal if jeopardy had not yet attached in accordance with the federal standard.113
- United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 570–72 (1977); Sanabria v. United States, 437 U.S. 54, 63–65 (1978); Finch v. United States, 433 U.S. 676 (1977).
- In Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U.S. 141 (1962), the Court acknowledged that the trial judge’s action in acquitting was “based upon an egregiously erroneous foundation,” but it was nonetheless final and could not be reviewed. Id. at 143.
- As a general rule a state may prescribe that a judge’s midtrial determination of the sufficiency of the prosecution’s proof may be reconsidered. Smith v. Massachusetts, 543 U.S. 462 (2005) (Massachusetts had not done so, however, so the judge’s midtrial acquittal on one of three counts became final for double jeopardy purposes when the prosecution rested its case).
- United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 571 (1977).
- 430 U.S. at 570–76. See also United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 87–92 (1978); Smalis v. Pennsylvania, 476 U.S. 140 (1986) (demurrer sustained on basis of insufficiency of evidence is acquittal).
- 437 U.S. 54 (1978).
- See also Smith v. Massachusetts, 543 U.S. 462 (2005) (acquittal based on erroneous interpretation of precedent).
- In United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332 (1975), following a jury verdict to convict, the trial judge granted defendant’s motion to dismiss on the ground of prejudicial delay, not a judgment of acquittal; the Court permitted a government appeal because reversal would have resulted in reinstatement of the jury’s verdict, not in a retrial. In United States v. Jenkins, 420 U.S. 358, 365 (1975), the Court assumed, on the basis of Wilson, that a trial judge’s acquittal of a defendant following a jury conviction could be appealed by the government because, again, if the judge’s decision were set aside there would be no further proceedings at trial. In overruling Jenkins in United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82 (1978), the Court noted the assumption and itself assumed that a judgment of acquittal bars appeal only when a second trial would be necessitated by reversal. Id. at 91 n.7.
- Serfass v. United States, 420 U.S. 377 (1975) (after request for jury trial but before attachment of jeopardy judge dismissed indictment because of evidentiary insufficiency; appeal allowed); United States v. Sanford, 429 U.S. 14 (1976) (judge granted mistrial after jury deadlock, then four months later dismissed indictment for insufficient evidence; appeal allowed, because granting mistrial had returned case to pre-trial status).