[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 8-1 [opinion, PDF] on Wednesday in Evans v. Michigan [SCOTUblog backgrounder; JURIST report] that double jeopardy [Cornell LII backgrounder] applies even if the trial judge acquitted the defendant based upon an erroneous ruling on the required elements of the offense. The defendant was charged with arson for burning down a vacant house in violation of a Michigan statute [MCL 750.73 text]. The trial court added an additional element to the state law requiring the prosecution to prove that the burned house was a dwelling. Failing to prove the nonexistent element, the trial court granted defendant’s motion for a directed verdict and entered an order of acquittal, dismissing the case. The Michigan Supreme Court [official website] reversed the lower court’s decision, reasoning that this case does not involve giving the prosecution a second opportunity to present evidence that it could have in the first proceeding. The US Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Michigan. The US Supreme Court had previously ruled [SCOTUSblog report] that double jeopardy applies when the trial judge makes an erroneous evidentiary finding regarding a required element of a crime. The state of Michigan tried to distinguish the precedent, where the trial court erroneously required the prosecution to prove more with regard to an element, with the current situation, where the trial court added an additional erroneous element. However, the US Supreme Court stated that both cases involved “an antecedent legal error that led to an acquittal because the State failed to prove a fact it was not actually required to prove” and that there was no distinguishable difference between the precedent and the current case.
Justice Samuel Alito, the lone dissenting opinion, argued that the court’s decision does not serve the original purpose of the double jeopardy clause. Alito stated that the original purpose of the double jeopardy clause was to prevent the state, with its superior resources and power, from getting multiple attempts to convict an individual for the same crime. Alito argued that in this situation the state never received a fair opportunity to prosecute the defendant in the first place. Alito further argued that there was no actual acquittal because acquittals are decisions based on resolution of elements of the charged offense, whereas in this case the decision was based on element that was not part of the charged offense.