Evans v. Michigan
568 U.S. ___ (2013)

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Justia Opinion Summary
After the State of Michigan rested its case at Evans’ arson trial, the court granted a directed verdict of acquittal, concluding that the state had failed to prove that the burned building was not a dwelling, a fact the court mistakenly believed was an “element” of the statutory offense. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for retrial. In affirming, the state’s highest court held that a directed verdict based on an error of law that did not resolve a factual element of the charged offense was not an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes. The Supreme Court reversed; the Double Jeopardy Clause bars retrial. An acquittal encompasses any ruling that the prosecution’s proof is insufficient to establish criminal liability for an offense. Unlike procedural rulings, which lead to dismissals or mistrials on a basis unrelated to factual guilt or innocence, acquittals are substantive rulings that conclude proceedings absolutely, and raise significant double jeopardy concerns. The trial court clearly evaluated the state’s evidence and determined that it was legally insufficient to sustain a conviction. The acquittal was the product of an erroneous interpretation of governing legal principles, but that error affects only the accuracy of the determination to acquit, not its essential character.

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

EVANS v. MICHIGAN

certiorari to the supreme court of michigan

No. 11–1327. Argued November 6, 2012—Decided February 20, 2013

After the State of Michigan rested its case at petitioner Evans’ arson trial, the court granted Evans’ motion for a directed verdict of acquittal, concluding that the State had failed to prove that the burned building was not a dwelling, a fact the court mistakenly believed was an “element” of the statutory offense. The State Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for retrial. In affirming, the State Supreme Court held that a directed verdict based on an error of law that did not resolve a factual element of the charged offense was not an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes.

Held: The Double Jeopardy Clause bars retrial for Evans’ offense. Pp. 4−17.

     (a) Retrial following a court-decreed acquittal is barred, even if the acquittal is “based upon an egregiously erroneous foundation,” Fong Foo v. United States, 369 U. S. 141 , such as an erroneous decision to exclude evidence, Sanabria v. United States, 437 U. S. 54 −69; a mistaken understanding of what evidence would suffice to sustain a conviction, Smith v. Massachusetts, 543 U. S. 462 ; or a “misconstruction of the statute” defining the requirements to convict, Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U. S. 303 . Most relevant here, an acquittal encompasses any ruling that the prosecution’s proof is insufficient to establish criminal liability for an offense. See, e.g., United States v. Scott, 437 U. S. 82 ; Burks v. United States, 437 U. S. 1 . In contrast to procedural rulings, which lead to dismissals or mistrials on a basis unrelated to factual guilt or innocence, acquittals are substantive rulings that conclude proceedings absolutely, and thus raise significant double jeopardy concerns. Scott, 437 U. S., at 91. Here, the trial court clearly “evaluated the [State’s] evidence and determined that it was legally insufficient to sustain a conviction.” United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., 430 U. S. 564 . Evans’ acquittal was the product of an erroneous interpretation of governing legal principles, but that error affects only the accuracy of the determination to acquit, not its essential character. See Scott, 437 U. S., at 98. Pp. 4−6.

     (b) The State Supreme Court attempted to distinguish this Court’s cases on the ground that they involved “the sufficiency of the factual elements of the charged offense,” while Evans’ case concerned “an error of law unrelated to [his] guilt or innocence,” but this Court perceives no such difference. This case, like the Court’s previous ones, involves an antecedent legal error that led to an acquittal because the State failed to prove a fact it was not actually required to prove. The State and the United States claim that only when an actual element of the offense is resolved can there be an acquittal of the offense, but Evans’ verdict was based on something that was concededly not an element. Their argument reads Martin Linen too narrowly and is inconsistent with this Court’s decisions since then. Martin Linen focused on the significance of the District Court’s acquittal based on a nonculpability determination, and its result did not depend on defining the “elements” of the offense. Culpability is the touchstone, not whether any particular elements were resolved or whether the nonculpability determination was legally correct. Scott, 437 U. S., at 98. Pp. 7−11.

     (c) Additional arguments the State and the United States raise in support of the lower court’s distinction are unpersuasive. The State claims that unless an actual element of the offense is resolved by the trial court, the only way to know whether the court’s ruling was an “acquittal” is to rely upon the court’s label, which would wrongly allow the form of the trial court’s action to control. However, the instant decision turns not on the form of the trial court’s action but on whether that action serves substantive or procedural purposes. The State and the United States argue that if the grounds for an acquittal are untethered from the actual elements of the offense, a trial court could issue an unreviewable order finding insufficient evidence to convict for any reason at all. But this Court presumes that courts exercise their duties in good faith. The State also suggests that Evans should not be heard to complain when a trial-court error that he induced is corrected and the State wishes to retry him, but most midtrial acquittals result from defense motions. The United States claims that, under Lee v. United States, 432 U. S. 23 , Evans was required to ask the court to resolve whether nondwelling status was an element of the offense before jeopardy attached. However, Lee involved a midtrial dismissal that was akin to a mistrial, while this case involves a ruling on the sufficiency of the State’s proof. Pp. 11−14.

     (d) This Court declines to revisit decisions such as Fong Foo, Smith, Rumsey, and Smalis v. Pennsylvania, 476 U. S. 140 . There is no reason to believe that the existing rules have become so “unworkable” as to justify overruling precedent. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U. S. 808 . And the logic of those cases still holds. As for the objection that the rule denies the prosecution a full and fair opportunity to present its evidence to the jury while the defendant reaps a “windfall” from the trial court’s unreviewable error, sovereigns have power to prevent such situations by disallowing the practice of midtrial acquittals, encouraging courts to defer consideration of a motion to acquit until after the jury renders a verdict, or providing for mandatory continuances or expedited interlocutory appeals. Pp. 14−16.

491 Mich. 1, 810 N. W. 2d 535, reversed.

     Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

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