Smith v. Massachusetts

PETITIONER:Melvin T. Smith
LOCATION:Texas State Capitol

DOCKET NO.: 03-8661
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

CITATION: 543 US 462 (2005)
GRANTED: Jun 14, 2004
ARGUED: Dec 01, 2004
DECIDED: Feb 22, 2005

Andrew H. Schapiro – for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging reversal
Cathryn A. Neaves – argued the cause for Respondent
David J. Nathanson – argued the cause for Petitioner
Pamela Harris – for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as amicus curiae urging reversal
Sri Srinivasan – argued the cause for Respondent, on behalf of the United States, as amicus curiae

Facts of the case

Melvin T. Smith was tried in for illegal possession of a firearm, among other offenses. During the trial the judge ruled Smith was not guilty because the state failed to introduce direct evidence of the gun’s length – therefore not proving the gun Smith possessed met the statutory definition of a firearm. The state later pointed to the state supreme court’s ruling that testimony that a gun was a pistol or revolver was sufficient evidence to allow a firearm charge to go to the jury. Because a witness had testified that Smith’s gun was a pistol, the judge reversed and sent the possession charge to the jury.

Smith appealed and argued the judge’s reversal of the not guilty ruling on the possession charge violated the Fifth Amendment’s doubly jeopardy clause, which prohibited successive prosecutions. The state court of appeals rejected Smith’s argument and ruled no Fifth Amendment violation occurred because the judge’s reversal did not require a second proceeding.


Is the double jeopardy clause’s prohibition against successive prosecutions, found in the Fifth Amendment, violated when a judge rules that the defendant is not guilty because the government’s evidence is insufficient but later in the trial reverses her finding of not guilty?

Media for Smith v. Massachusetts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 01, 2004 in Smith v. Massachusetts

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – February 22, 2005 in Smith v. Massachusetts

Sandra Day O’Connor:

The opinion of the Court in Smith versus Massachusetts will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This Case No. 03-8661 is here on writ of certiorari to the Appeals of Court of Massachusetts.

The petitioner was tried in Massachusetts Superior Court on several criminal charges, one of which was unlawful possession of a firearm.

Under the state statute, to prove that possession offense the prosecution had to establish that petitioner possessed a weapon with a barrel less than 16 inches long.

The only evidence from that point was the shooting victims testimony that petitioner had shot him with a pistol or a revolver.

When the prosecution concluded its evidence petitioner move for a required finding of not guilty, which under Massachusetts procedure is an acquittal by the judge.

Out of the jury’s presence, the judge granted the motion as to the firearm count because she thought the prosecution had presented “not a scintilla of evidence” that the firearm had a barrel shorter than 16 inches.

The prosecution rested and the defense case proceeded on the remaining counts of the indictment.

After petitioner and his codefendant arrested, the prosecution persuaded the judge that her earlier ruling had been wrong because a Massachusetts precedent established unsurprisingly that the statement that a gun was a pistol was sufficient to show that it had a barrel less than 16 inches.

The judge announced that she was reversing her previous ruling and letting the firearm count go to the jury.

Petitioner was convicted on all counts.

The Appeals Court of Massachusetts affirmed that conviction rejecting petitioner’s argument that he had been subjected to double jeopardy in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The Appeals Court held that nothing in the double jeopardy clause prohibits a trial judge from reconsidering her own ruling.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk we the reverse the judgment of the Appeals Court and hold that petitioner was subjected to double jeopardy.

We have repeatedly held that an acquittal by a judge precludes reexamination of the defendant’s guilt no less than an acquittal by a jury.

The judge’s ruling in this case met the definition of an acquittal.

It held that the prosecution had failed to prove a factual element of the offense charge.

Because petitioner was acquitted, the subsequent submission of the case to the jury amounted to an impermissible second jeopardy unless the Constitution permits the judge to reconsider her own mid trial ruling of acquittal.

In this case, petitioner had no reason to doubt that the State Court’s ruling was a final one.

It was not labeled as tentative.

Indeed, state procedure required the judge to make a ruling on petitioner’s motion before the defendants began their case, nor was there any state procedural rule on the book that allowed the judge to reconsider her ruling if she became convince that her legal conclusion had been wrong.

The state rules provided only for the correction of clerical errors or errors “arising from oversight or omission.”

Massachusetts identifies a few State Court cases that permit reconsideration of interlocutory rulings such as rulings on pretrial motions.

But these precedence does not clearly extent to a judge’s findings of not guilty which is not interlocutory because it purports to terminate that count of the indictment.

We think that the state can by stature rule or common law provide that mid trial judgment of acquittal are subject to reconsideration, but if an acquittal by all appearances is final it may induce a defendant to make strategic choices that would be prejudicial if the acquittal may reconsidered later in the trial.

For example, establishing the defense to the remaining counts may make it useful for him to admit his guilt on the acquitted count.

The Double Jeopardy Clause’s guarantee cannot be allowed to become a potential snare for those who reasonably rely upon it.

Massachusetts has not shown that the judges finding of not guilty was automatically or even presumptively non-final.

At most it has shown that the finding was legally incorrect but the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits reexamination of acquittals even when they are plainly wrong.

For these reasons and others expressed in our opinion today, we hold that petitioner’s rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause were violated.

Antonin Scalia:

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Appeals Court of Massachusetts and we remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy and Breyer have joined.