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Evans v. Michigan: Midtrial Acquittal Based On Error Is Still An Acquittal For Double Jeopardy Purposes

February 21, 2013 Criminal Law and Procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court case of Evans v. Michigan concerns the Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy Clause prohibition of retrying a defendant twice for the same crime.

Evans was on trial for an arson charge in Michigan. After the State of Michigan rested its case, the court entered a directed verdict of acquittal for Evans, under the belief that the State had not met its burden as to a particular element of the arson offense. However, the unproven element turned out to not be an element of the offense at all.

The State’s evidence showed that Evans had set fire to an unoccupied house. Evans had been charged with burning “other real property,” a violation of MCL §750.73. In his motion for a directed verdict, Evans told the court that the applicable jury instruction includes the element “that the building was not a dwelling house.” The commentary to the jury instruction emphasized that the structure burned not be a dwelling house. Evans also argued that MCL §750.72 covers common-law arson, which would require the element that the structure burned be a dwelling, whereas the statute under which he was charged covered all “other real property.” The State had not shown in its case that the structure burned was not a dwelling house and the trial court granted the motion for acquittal.

Related:  Miller v. Alabama: Life Without Parole Sentences For Juveniles Are Unconstitutional

On appeal the Michigan Court of Appeals held that burning “other real property” is a lesser included offense under the law, and disproving the greater offense of arson of a dwelling is not required. The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed, holding that “when a trial court grants a defendant’s motion for a directed verdict on the basis of an error of law that did not resolve any factual element of the charged offense, the trial court’s ruling does not constitute an acquittal for the purposes of double jeopardy and retrial is therefore not barred.”

The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert to determine whether a retrial is barred when a trial court grants an acquittal based on the erroneous belief that the prosecution failed to prove an element of an offense that it was not, in actuality, required to prove.

Related:  Smith v. Cain: The Prosecution’s Duty To Disclose Evidence

The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment provides that a person shall not be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb, which for the purposes of this case means that the government may not retry a person twice for the same crime. In the 1962 case of Fong Foo v. United States the Court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause bars retrial following a court-decreed acquittal, even where the acquittal is based on erroneous grounds.

An acquittal is where the trial court rules that the defendant wins the trial for reasons such as the prosecution did not met its burden of proof, the defendant lacked criminal culpability, or any ruling on the question of guilt or innocence. For double jeopardy purposes, an acquittal stands in contrast to a termination of a trial on an erroneous procedural grounds.

Related:  U.S. Supreme Court Rules On Intrusive Jailhouse Searches

The purpose of the double jeopardy acquittal rule is to prevent a situation in which the government wears down a defendant with multiple trials, subjecting the defendant to considerable expense, embarrassment, and anxiety. An acquittal, no matter how erroneous, must have a permanent effect.

Following Fong Foo there have been many subsequent cases where acquittals under different circumstances barred retrial. For example, In Sanabria v. United States, the Court held that an acquittal bars retrial where it was based on an erroneous decision to exclude evidence. Also in Arizona v. Rumsey, where the Court held that an acquittal bars retrial where it was based on the misconstruction of a statute that defined sufficient evidence to convict.

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The Court held that there is no meaningful distinction between the current situation and these past cases. The Court therefore held that a midtrial acquittal based on error of law is an acquittal for Double Jeopardy purposes and bars a retrial of Evans.

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