prev | next
Amdt5.3.6.1 Overview of Re-Prosecution After Acquittal

Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

That a defendant may not be retried following an acquittal is “the most fundamental rule in the history of double jeopardy jurisprudence.” 1 “[T]he law attaches particular significance to an acquittal. To permit a second trial after an acquittal, however mistaken the acquittal may have been, would present an unacceptably high risk that the Government, with its vastly superior resources, might wear down the defendant so that ‘even though innocent he may be found guilty.’” 2 Although, in other areas of double jeopardy doctrine, consideration is given to the public-safety interest in having a criminal trial proceed to an error-free conclusion, no such balancing of interests is permitted with respect to acquittals, “no matter how erroneous,” no matter even if they were “egregiously erroneous.” 3 Thus, an acquittal resting on the trial judge’s misreading of the elements of an offense precludes further prosecution.4

The acquittal being final, there is no governmental appeal constitutionally possible from such a judgment. This was firmly established in Kepner v. United States,5 which arose under a Philippines appeals system in which the appellate court could make an independent review of the record, set aside the trial judge’s decision, and enter a judgment of conviction.6 Previously, under the Due Process Clause, there was no barrier to state provision for prosecutorial appeals from acquittals.7 But there are instances in which the trial judge will dismiss the indictment or information without intending to acquit or in circumstances in which retrial would not be barred, and the prosecution, of course, has an interest in seeking on appeal to have errors corrected. Until 1971, however, the law providing for federal appeals was extremely difficult to apply and insulated from review many purportedly erroneous legal rulings,8 but in that year Congress enacted a new statute permitting appeals in all criminal cases in which indictments are dismissed, except in those cases in which the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits further prosecution.9 In part because of the new law, the Court has dealt in recent years with a large number of problems in this area.

United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 571 (1977). back
United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 91 (1978) (quoting Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184, 188 (1957)). back
Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1, 16 (1978); Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U.S. 141, 143 (1962). For evaluation of those interests of the defendant that might support the absolute rule of finality, and rejection of all such interests save the right of the jury to acquit against the evidence and the trial judge’s ability to temper legislative rules with leniency, see Peter Westen & Richard Drubel, Toward a General Theory of Double Jeopardy, 1978 Sup. Ct. Rev. 81, 122–37. back
Evans v. Michigan, 568 U.S. 313 (2013) (acquittal after judge ruled the prosecution failed to prove that a burned building was not a dwelling, but such proof was not legally required for the arson offense charged). back
195 U.S. 100 (1904). The case interpreted not the constitutional provision but a statutory provision extending double jeopardy protection to the Philippines. The Court has described the case, however, as correctly stating constitutional principles. See, e.g., United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332, 346 n.15 (1975); United States v. DiFrancesco, 449 U.S. 117, 113 n.13 (1980). back
In dissent, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, joined by three other Justices, propounded a theory of “continuing jeopardy,” so that until the case was finally concluded one way or another, through judgment of conviction or acquittal, and final appeal, there was no second jeopardy no matter how many times a defendant was tried. 195 U.S. at 134. The Court has numerous times rejected any concept of “continuing jeopardy.” E.g., Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184, 192 (1957); United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332, 351–53 (1975); Breed v. Jones, 421 U.S. 519, 533–35 (1975). back
Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937). Palko is no longer viable. Cf. Greene v. Massey, 437 U.S. 19 (1978). back
The Criminal Appeals Act of 1907, 34 Stat. 1246, was “a failure . . . , a most unruly child that has not improved with age.” United States v. Sisson, 399 U.S. 267, 307 (1970). See also United States v. Oppenheimer, 242 U.S. 85 (1916); Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U.S. 141 (1962). back
Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control Act, Pub. L. No. 91-644, 84 Stat. 1890, 18 U.S.C. § 3731. Congress intended to remove all statutory barriers to governmental appeal and to allow appeals whenever the Constitution would permit, so that interpretation of the statute requires constitutional interpretation as well. United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332, 337 (1975). See Sanabria v. United States, 437 U.S. 54, 69 n.23 (1978), and id. at 78 (Stevens, J., concurring). back