LOCATION: Vacant house that burned
DOCKET NO.: 11-1327
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: Michigan Supreme Court
CITATION: 568 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jun 11, 2012
ARGUED: Nov 06, 2012
DECIDED: Feb 20, 2013
Curtis E. Gannon - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting the respondent
David A. Moran - for the petitioner
Timothy A. Baughman - for the respondent
Facts of the case
Lamar Evans was accused of burning a vacant house in Detroit, Michigan. He was charged with "burning other real property." The trial court required the prosecution to prove that the building was not a dwelling, although that is not an element of the crime under Michigan law. As a result of this extra element, the court granted Evans' motion for a directed verdict of acquittal. The Court of Appeals of Michigan reversed the trial court decision and remanded for further proceedings. The court held that Double Jeopardy did not bar a retrial because the trial court did not resolve any factual element of the case. The directed verdict was based only on the prosecution's failure to prove an element that is not part of the crime. The Supreme Court of Michigan affirmed.
Does the Double Jeopardy Clause bar retrial after the trial judge wrongly holds a particular fact to be an element of the offense and then grants a directed verdict of acquittal because the prosecution failed to prove that fact?
Media for Evans v. MichiganAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 06, 2012 in Evans v. Michigan
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 20, 2013 in Evans v. Michigan
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
In case No. 11-1327, Evans versus Michigan, Justice Sotomayor has the opinion of the Court.
This case concerns the right of a criminal defendant not to be retried after he has acquitted of an offense.
Petitioner Lamar Evans was charged with arson under a Michigan statute that criminalizes burning a building or other real property.
The State's evidence at trial showed that the burned building was an unoccupied house.
When the State rested its case, Evans moved for a directed verdict of acquittal.
He pointed the trial court to the applicable pattern jury instructions which stated that an essential element of this offense is, “That the building was not a dwelling house.”
That act is covered by a different statute.
Because the state have failed to prove that the building was not a dwelling house, the trial court acquitted Evans.
It turns out that the trial court was wrong.
Under Michigan law, it is not necessary to disprove the greater offense of burning a house in order to establish the lesser offense of burning a building.
So, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed.
The Court also held that retrying Evans would not violate the double jeopardy clause, because he had not actually been acquitted.
The Court reasoned that the acquittal was not really an acquittal, because it was based on the States, fairly, had a proven an element of the offense that was not actually an element at all.
The Michigan Supreme Court affirmed.
We now reverse.
Our cases have long established that there can be no retrial following an acquittal, even if the acquittal was based upon an egregiously, erroneous foundation.
The reason is that the double jeopardy clause protects a defendant's interest in having his guilt or innocence decided only once.
Thus, we have held that an acquittal precludes retrial even when, for example, it is premised on a mistaken understanding of what evidence would suffice to sustain a conviction or upon a misconstruction of the statute, defining the requirements to convict.
In essence, an acquittal is any ruling that the prosecution's proof is insufficient to establish a defendant's criminal liability.
That is what the trial court ruled here.
As in our previous cases, the court's ruling was based on an antecedent legal error, but this ruling still went to the ultimate question of Evans' innocence or guilt.
Under our case law, it was therefore an acquittal that bars retrial.
The Michigan courts distinguished our previous cases on the ground that they involved the erroneous resolution of an actual element of the offense, whereas, here, no actual element of the relevant statute was resolved at all.
We failed to perceive a meaningful difference.
Whether we call a trial court's error, the misconstruction of an element of the offense as in our previous cases or the erroneous addition of an element of the offense as we have here, the defendant is declared not guilty because of the State's failure to prove some facts, it was not actually required to prove.
In both cases, the trial court has resolved the bottom line issue of the defendant's culpability and that is all that matters.
The State in the United States make additional arguments in support of affirmance, which we reject, for reasons discussed fully in our opinion.
They also asked us to reconsider our past decisions.
We declined to do so because our precedent has not become so unworkable as to justify overruling and the logic of our cases still hold.
Because Evans was acquitted, there should have been no appeal by the State.