Sometimes a defendant in a criminal case will ask a judge to grant them a judgment of acquittal. This can happen before the jury deliberates on the case, or it can happen within a specific time after the jury issues a conviction. Most often, a defendant will bring a motion for a judgment of acquittal after the prosecution has finished presenting its evidence or after both sides have finished presenting their evidence. If the defendant brings the motion after a conviction, it may be called a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The standard for granting a judgment of acquittal is very strict, and these motions generally do not succeed. Not every state allows motions for a judgment of acquittal, but the federal criminal justice system does.
Meeting the Standard for a Judgment of Acquittal
A motion for a judgment of acquittal can be granted only if no reasonable jury could find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime charged. This essentially means that the prosecution’s evidence is too weak to support a conviction, viewing it as generously as possible. Sometimes a defendant will ask for a judgment of acquittal with regard to only some of the charges. This might narrow the issues that the jury will consider if the judge grants the motion. For example, perhaps a defendant is being charged with theft from a store and assault of the store employee who caught them. If most of the prosecution’s evidence supports the theft charge, and there is minimal evidence to support the assault charge, the judge might grant a judgment of acquittal on the assault charge alone. The jury then would proceed to consider the theft charge. (Plea bargaining also is a way to remove charges for which the prosecution’s evidence is weaker.)
A motion for a judgment of acquittal is not a shortcut to have a judge decide a case instead of a jury. The judge cannot substitute their own judgment for the judgment of the jury, and most judges will be reluctant to interfere with the jury’s responsibilities. They will need to interpret inferences in favor of the prosecution and try to view the case in the way that is most favorable to the prosecution. This can be a challenging mental exercise because the defendant is presumed innocent, and the prosecution has a very high burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
What Happens Next
If the defendant prevails in this type of motion, they likely will win the case conclusively. The judge will dismiss the charges and order the defendant to be released if they are in custody. (If the judgment of acquittal applies to only some of the charges, the defendant may remain in custody pending the resolution of the other charges.)
If the defendant brings this motion after the jury has already returned a guilty verdict, the prosecution likely will have a right to appeal the judge’s decision. Otherwise, the double jeopardy rule prevents the prosecution from starting the case against the defendant again, unless an exception applies.