A criminal matter can be resolved in favor of the defendant in several ways. Two of the most common ways are through an acquittal or a dismissal. An acquittal and dismissal have different consequences for a defendant charged with the crime.
An acquittal is a judgment that a person charged with a crime is not guilty of that crime. A defendant is acquitted by a jury in a jury trial, and by a judge in a bench trial. To convict a criminal defendant, the prosecution must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A judgment of acquittal means the prosecution was unable to prove one or more of these elements.
Prosecutors often charge defendants with more than crime. If a defendant has been charged with committing one or more crimes, and a verdict of not guilty is delivered with respect to each, the defendant has been completely acquitted. If the verdict is not guilty for one or more offenses, but guilty for one or more other defenses, the verdict constitutes a partial acquittal.
The double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits a criminal defendant from being tried twice for the same offense. If a defendant has been acquitted of an offense, they cannot be tried by the same court for that particular offense at a later date.
An example of the double jeopardy rule at work is this: a defendant has been charged with burglary and at the defendant’s trial in a state trial court of county X, the defendant is acquitted. The double jeopardy rule prevents that state county court from trying the defendant again for the burglary.
The rule against double jeopardy does not apply:
- When a state court and a federal court both charge a defendant with the same offense. Under the so-called “separate sovereigns” doctrine, an acquittal in one of these courts does not prevent a defendant from later being tried in the other. In addition, a conviction in one of these courts does not prevent a defendant from later being convicted in the other court. States may prohibit a defendant who was charged in federal court from later being tried in state court for the same offense. However, the federal constitution does not require the prohibition of dual (state and federal) prosecutions; and
- When an individual is charged with a criminal offense that has a civil offense equivalent. For example, a defendant may be tried and acquitted for the criminal offense of murder. The acquittal does not prevent the later bringing of a civil wrongful death action against that defendant in a separate, civil litigation proceeding.
A dismissal is the termination of a case before the question of guilt gets to be adjudicated. A judge may order a case dismissed for a variety of reasons. These reasons include:
- Lack of sufficient evidence or probable cause for the matter to proceed to trial. A judge typically dismisses a case for these reasons upon the filing of a motion, or application for order of dismissal, by a defendant;
- The evidence obtained by the prosecution was obtained through violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. A defendant’s constitutional rights can be violated in a number of ways, including through an illegal search or seizure, or through failure to honor a defendant’s Miranda rights – the right during a custodial interrogation to remain silent, and the right to have an attorney be present during questioning;
- The prosecution has engaged in flagrant misconduct. An example of misconduct is when the prosecution has exculpatory evidence (evidence that tends to show the defendant is not guilty of the charged offense) and deliberately refuses to share that evidence with the defense. The US Constitution requires that exculpatory evidence be given to the defense. If a judge finds the concealment of exculpatory evidence was deliberate, the case may be dismissed.
Dismissal may occur at any time before the jury (or judge, in a bench trial) gets the opportunity to determine guilt or innocence upon hearing both the prosecution’s and defendant’s case. Since the issue of guilt is not adjudicated, the jury (or judge) does not have the opportunity to declare that a defendant is not guilty.
As a result, there is no possibility for an acquittal, and along with it, the bar on a later prosecution. Therefore, a case that has been dismissed can be re-filed at a subsequent date.
Acquittal and dismissal are two common ways that a criminal law case can be resolved. If you wish to understand more about these and other options for the defense of your case, you may wish to consult with a criminal defense lawyer. An experienced criminal defense lawyer near you can assess the facts and circumstances of your case, and can represent you at hearings and at trial.