In an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today held that a Michigan man acquitted of arson cannot be retried despite the trial judge's mistake of law:
This Court has previously held that a judicial acquittal premised upon a "misconstruction" of a criminal statute is an"acquittal on the merits . . . [that] bars retrial. Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U. S. 203, 211 (1984). Seeing no meaningful constitutional distinction between a trial court’s "misconstruction" of a statute and its erroneous addition of a statutory element, we hold that a midtrial acquittal in these circumstances is an acquittal for double jeopardy purposes as well.In the trial in the 3rd Circuit Court Judge Deborah Thomas had required that the prosecution to prove that the burned house was a dwelling, a level of proof not required under state law. The case is Evans v. Michigan. Download the opinion here. Justice Alito dissented:
I would hold that double jeopardy protection is not triggered by a judge’s erroneous preverdict ruling that creates an "element" out of thin air and then holds that the element is not satisfied. I therefore respectfullydissent.
The decision, authored by Justice Sotomayor, reverses a 4-3 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court. David Moran, of the University of Michigan Law School's Innocence Clinic, argued the case for Evans. Timothy Baughman, who argued for the state, told Reuters that the Michigan Supreme Court had been considering whether to require state judges who grant midtrial acquittals to offer prosecutors 24 hours to seek reversals. If such a rule had been in effect at the time of Evans' acquittal, Baughman said, the prosecution would "clearly" have won a stay and the trial would have resumed. It was a rare U.S. Supreme Court defeat for Baughman.