I hope that I am not displaying some kind of blazing ignorance when I say this, but I was completely taken by surprise by the sentence in the following news story which says “prosecutors plan to appeal.”
It happens. We have a state’s appeal going at my office right now, based on a ruling the judge made on a pretrial motion that completely torpedoed our case. The state’s brief is in, the defendant has filed a continuance.
What prevents a prosecutor from appealing is the Double Jeopardy Clause. But there are a number of ways a prosecutor can appeal.
To expand on what Max said, imagine a pre-trial ruling that completely cripples a case… excludes the bloody knife, the fingerprints, and the self-made video showing the accused doing the killing. The prosecution can appeal that ruling before the trial gets underway, because jeopardy hasn’t yet come into play (“attached”) to the case. Jeopardy attaches when a trial starts – literally, the moment the jury is sworn in, or at a bench trial the moment the judge begins hearing evidence.
Even after jeopardy has attached, there are options. Let’s imagine that same crippling ruling comes in the middle of the trial, after jeopardy has attached. The rules of criminal procedure typically allow for an interlocutory appeal, where the trial is suspended while the prosecutor asks a higher court to revisit the judge’s ruling. He can’t wait until the end of the trial, because the ruling has virtually ensured a “not guilty” verdict, from which there is no appeal. So the rules allow him to say, in effect, this ruling is so deadly to my case, I need to have it reviewed now, or I’ll lose the case.
Finally, we can imagine a case where the jury returns a verdict of guilty, but the judge overrules them, finding as a matter of law that the prosecution didn’t prove their case. The judge announces an acquittal and frees the accused. The prosecution may appeal that decision, because the finder of fact returned a guilty verdict, and jeopardy is not affected.
The Judge is a Finder of Fact. His or Her Ruling Overruling the Guilty Verdict By The Jury and Entering An Acquittal is NOT Appealable By The Prosecutor. Double Jeopardy Applies to The Judges Ruling of Acquittal. Acquittal is the Same as A Not Guilty Verdict.
In a jury trial, the jury is the finder of fact, not the judge. If a judge throws out a guilty verdict, it is because of a matter of law, not fact. A judgment about the law is usually appealable. That’s pretty much all appeals courts are for.
That’s called a bench trial, and in that case the judge is both the finder of fact and of law, since there is no jury there.
I don’t know that “many” criminal trials are bench trials. The vast majority that I hear about are jury trials. Generally the defense will only opt for a bench trial when they intend to make technical legal arguments rather than raise reasonable doubt as to the facts.
If a court acquits the defendant, the prosecutor may not appeal the verdict. Appealing a verdict of “not guilty” would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Prosecutors may, however, appeal all pre-trial rulings and decisions regarding the admissibility of evidence at trial.
Court Means Judge or Jury!!!
With one exception, in the United States an acquittal cannot be appealed by the prosecution because of constitutional prohibitions against double jeopardy. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled:
If the judgment is upon an acquittal, the defendant, indeed, will not seek to have it reversed, and the government cannot. U. S. v. Sanges, 144 U.S. 310 (1892). Ball v. U.S., 163 U.S. 662, 671 (1896)
If the trial judge acquits because he is the finder of fact, then it’s an acquittal, yes. And even if there’s a jury empaneled, but they don’t get to render a verdict because the judge acquits, that too is protected by the Double Jeopardy Clause. But if there’s a jury, and if the jury has returned a verdict of guilty, and then the trial judge sets aside that verdict and enters a judgment of acquittal, that ruling is subject to appeal and reversal, and the DJ clause is NOT implicated.
We learn this from abundant case law. See, e.g., US v. Wilson, 420 U.S. 332, 352: