Reprosecution After Acquittal
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.
Acquittal by Jury
Little or no controversy accompanies the rule that once a jury has acquitted a defendant, government may not, through appeal of the verdict or institution of a new prosecution, place the defendant on trial again.10 Thus, the Court early held that, when the results of a trial are set aside because the first indictment was invalid or for some reason the trial’s results were voidable, a judgment of acquittal must nevertheless remain undisturbed.11
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.12 There is no possibility of retrial for the same offense.13 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.14 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.” 15 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.16 Even if, as happened in Sanabria v. United States,17 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.18
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.19 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.20
Trial Court Rulings Terminating Trial Before Verdict
If, after jeopardy attaches, a trial judge grants a motion for mistrial, ordinarily the defendant is subject to retrial;21 if, after jeopardy attaches, but before a jury conviction occurs, the trial judge acquits, perhaps on the basis that the prosecution has presented insufficient evidence or that the defendant has proved a requisite defense such as “insanity” or entrapment, the defendant is not subject to retrial.22 This is so even where the trial court's ruling on the sufficiency of the evidence is based on an erroneous interpretation of the statute defining the elements of the offense.23 However, it may be that the trial judge will grant a motion to dismiss that is neither a mistrial nor an acquittal, but is instead a termination of the trial in defendant’s favor based on some decision not relating to his factual guilt or innocence, such as prejudicial preindictment delay.24 The prosecution may not simply begin a new trial but must seek first to appeal and overturn the dismissal, a course that was not open to federal prosecutors until enactment of the Omnibus Crime Control Act in 1971.25 That law has resulted in tentative and uncertain rulings with respect to when such dismissals may be appealed and further proceedings directed. In the first place, it is unclear in many instances whether a judge’s ruling is a mistrial, a dismissal, or an acquittal.26 In the second place, because the Justices have such differing views about the policies underlying the Double Jeopardy Clause, determinations of which dismissals preclude appeals and further proceedings may result from shifting coalitions and from revised perspectives. Thus, the Court first fixed the line between permissible and impermissible appeals at the point at which further proceedings would have had to take place in the trial court if the dismissal were reversed. If the only thing that had to be done was to enter a judgment on a guilty verdict after reversal, appeal was constitutional and permitted under the statute;27 if further proceedings, such as continuation of the trial or some further factfinding, was necessary, appeal was not permitted.28 Now, but by a close division of the Court, the determining factor is not whether further proceedings must be had but whether the action of the trial judge, whatever its label, correct or not, resolved some or all of the factual elements of the offense charged in defendant’s favor, whether, that is, the court made some determination related to the defendant’s factual guilt or innocence.29 Such dismissals relating to guilt or innocence are functional equivalents of acquittals, whereas all other dismissals are functional equivalents of mistrials.
- United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U.S. 564, 571 (1977).
- United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 91 (1978) (quoting Green v. United States, 355 U.S. 184, 188 (1957)). For the conceptually related problem of trial for a “separate” offense arising out of the same “transaction,” see discussion under “The ‘Same Transaction’ Problem,” infra.
- 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 Westen & Drubel, Toward a General Theory of Double Jeopardy, 1978 Sup. Ct. Rev. 81, 122–37.
- 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).
- 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).
- In dissent, Justice 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).
- Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937). Palko is no longer viable. Cf. Greene v. Massey, 437 U.S. 19 (1978).
- 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).
- 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 (Justice Stevens concurring).
- What constitutes a jury acquittal may occasionally be uncertain. In Blueford v. Arkansas, 566 U.S. 599 (2012), the defendant was charged with capital murder in an “acquittal-first” jurisdiction, in which the jury must unanimously agree that a defendant is not guilty of a greater offense before it may begin to consider a lesser included offense. After several hours of deliberations, the foreperson of the jury stated in open court that the jury was unanimously against conviction for capital murder and the lesser included offense of first degree murder, but was deadlocked on manslaughter, the next lesser included offense. After further deliberations, the judge declared a mistrial because of a hung jury. Six Justices of the Court subsequently held that the foreperson's statement on capital murder and first degree murder lacked the necessary finality of an acquittal, and found that Double Jeopardy did not bar a subsequent prosecution for those crimes. Three dissenting Justices held that Double Jeopardy required a partial verdict of acquittal on the greater offenses under the circumstances.
In Schiro v. Farley, 510 U.S. 222 (1994), the Court ruled that a jury’s action in leaving the verdict sheet blank on all but one count did not amount to an acquittal on those counts, and that consequently conviction on the remaining count, alleged to be duplicative of one of the blank counts, could not constitute double jeopardy. In any event, the Court added, no successive prosecution violative of double jeopardy could result from an initial sentencing proceeding in the course of an initial prosecution.
- In United States v. Ball, 163 U.S. 662 (1896), three defendants were placed on trial, Ball was acquitted and the other two were convicted, the two appealed and obtained a reversal on the ground that the indictment had been defective, and all three were again tried and all three were convicted. Ball’s conviction was set aside as violating the clause; the trial court’s action was not void but only voidable, and Ball had taken no steps to void it while the government could not take such action. Similarly, in Benton v. Maryland, 395 U.S. 784 (1969), the defendant was convicted of burglary but acquitted of larceny; the conviction was set aside on his appeal because the jury had been unconstitutionally chosen. He was again tried and convicted of both burglary and larceny, but the larceny conviction was held to violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. On the doctrine of “constructive acquittals” by conviction of a lesser included offense, see discussion infra under “Reprosecution After Reversal on Defendant’s Appeal.”
- 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 pretrial status).
- See “Reprosecution After Reversal on Defendant’s Appeal,” supra.
- See “Acquittal by the Trial Judge,” supra.
- See Evans v. Michigan, 568 U.S. 313 (2013).
- United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332 (1975) (preindictment delay); United States v. Jenkins, 420 U.S. 358 (1975) (determination of law based on facts adduced at trial; ambiguous whether judge’s action was acquittal or dismissal); United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82 (1978) (preindictment delay).
- See United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82, 84–86 (1978); United States v. Sisson, 399 U.S. 267, 291–96 (1970).
- Cf. Lee v. United States, 432 U.S. 23 (1977).
- United States v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332 (1975) (after jury guilty verdict, trial judge dismissed indictment on grounds of preindictment delay; appeal permissible because upon reversal all trial judge had to do was enter judgment on the jury’s verdict).
- United States v. Jenkins, 420 U.S. 358 (1975) (after presentation of evidence in bench trial, judge dismissed indictment; appeal impermissible because if dismissal was reversed there would have to be further proceedings in the trial court devoted to resolving factual issues going to elements of offense charged and resulting in supplemental findings).
- United States v. Scott, 437 U.S. 82 (1978) (at close of evidence, court dismissed indictment for preindictment delay; ruling did not go to determination of guilt or innocence, but, like a mistrial, permitted further proceedings that would go to factual resolution of guilt or innocence). The Court thought that double jeopardy policies were resolvable by balancing the defendant’s interest in having the trial concluded in one proceeding against the government’s right to one complete opportunity to convict those who have violated the law. The defendant chose to move to terminate the proceedings and, having made a voluntary choice, is bound to the consequences, including the obligation to continue in further proceedings. Id. at 95–101. The four dissenters would have followed Jenkins, and accused the Court of having adopted too restrictive a definition of acquittal. Their view is that the rule against retrials after acquittal does not, as the Court believed, “safeguard determination of innocence; rather, it is that a retrial following a final judgment for the accused necessarily threatens intolerable interference with the constitutional policy against multiple trials.” Id. at 101, 104 (Justices Brennan, White, Marshall, and Stevens). They would, therefore, treat dismissals as functional equivalents of acquittals, whenever further proceedings would be required after reversals.
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