Criminal Law

Ending a Criminal Trial with a Motion for Acquittal

A defendant has a constitutional right to a jury trial. This right can be waived and the case may be tried by the court. However, even in a jury trial, the defendant has the right to take the case away from the jury and have it decided by the trial judge. This is done through a motion for acquittal, which may be granted if there isn't enough evidence to support a conviction.

This procedure protects the defendant from an improper or irrational jury verdict. If the court grants an acquittal before the jury returns a verdict, the defendant can't be tried again for the same crime because double jeopardy protection attaches.

Timing of the Motion for Acquittal

A motion for acquittal can be made at the close of the government's case, before the close of the government's case or after the evidence on both sides has closed. Asking for an acquittal before the close of the government's case is rare, but it can be done when it is shown that the government has no case or the accused has an iron clad defense.

Despite when the motion is made, the court can reserve making a decision on the motion to whenever it wants. The court can allow the case to go to the jury and then rule on the motion for acquittal after the jury returns its verdict.

Determination of the Sufficiency of the Evidence

The standard on a motion for acquittal is whether the evidence is sufficient to sustain a verdict against the defendant. This requires the court to determine whether any reasonable jury might find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge views the evidence in the light most favorable to the government. The motion will be denied if, based on the evidence presented, a rational person could find that the essential elements of the crime are proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Application of Double Jeopardy Protection

Double jeopardy protection attaches when there is a final judgment of acquittal. This means that the government can't proceed against the defendant again for the same offense. The government can't appeal the judgment of acquittal if it is made prior to the jury's verdict. However, the government can appeal if the acquittal is granted after the jury returns a guilty verdict. If the government is successful on appeal, there is no need for a retrial, and the court will simply reinstate the jury's verdict.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If a motion for acquittal is granted, will there be any record of the case on my criminal history?
  • What are the elements of a crime?
  • Is there a downside to asking for a judgment of acquittal?
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