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Tuesday, February 22, 2005
In Smith v. Massachusetts, No. 03-8661 (Feb. 22, 2005), the Supreme Court held that Double Jeopardy principles barred a trial judge, after granting a motion finding insufficient evidence supported a gun count against a defendant when the prosecution rested its case, to change his mind and reconsider the issue after the defense rested.The Court noted that the trial judge’s ruling on the defense motion regarding the insufficiency of the evidence was in effect an acquittal. The ruling resolved some of the factual elements of the offense charged. And even if the jury was the primary factfinder in the case, the trial judge still resolve factual issues when ruling on Rule 29-type motion.The Court found that the acquittal triggered Double Jeopardy protection. First, the prosecution, after the ruling, did not make or reserve a motion for reconsideration, or seek a continuance. Further, the Massachusetts rules of procedure did not authorize the trial court to defer ruling on the motion. In addition, a defendant is prejudiced when the trial continues and he labors under the mistaken impression that he does not face a risk of conviction as to a certain count. This mistaken impression could lead the defendant to present inadvisable defenses, for example, admitting guilt on the acquitted count. It could also impact how co-defendants present their defense. The Court explained: "The Double Jeopardy Clause’s guarantee cannot be allowed to become a potential snare for those who reasonably rely upon it. If, after a facially unqualified midtrial dismissal of one count, the trial has proceeded to the defendant’s introduction of evidence, the acquittal must be treated as final, unless the availability of reconsideration has been plainly established by pre-existing rule or case authority." The Court noted the dissent’s contention that the defendant suffered no prejudice in this case when the judge reconsidered his ruling, but stated: "requiring someone to defend against a charge of which he has already been acquitted is prejudice per se for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause – even when the acquittal was erroneous."