Clearing the Murky Waters of the Sargasso Sea: The Supreme Court’s Upholding of Acquittals as Final in Smith v. Massachusetts

Mike Staskiews, Clearing the Murky Waters of the Sargasso Sea: The Supreme Court’s Upholding of Acquittals as Final in Smith v. Massachusetts, 41 Gonz. L. Rev. 391 (2006).

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“Nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Although the Double Jeopardy Clause stems from this simple sentence contained in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the law surrounding the Clause has been described as “a veritable Sargasso Sea which could not fail to challenge the most intrepid judicial navigator.” It is noteworthy that a concept such as Double Jeopardy, which “has existed “in almost all systems of jurisprudence throughout history[,]‘” would still be the source of such debate and uncertainty.

In Smith v. Massachusetts, the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether the Double Jeopardy Clause barred a midtrial reconsideration of an acquittal by a Massachusetts State trial judge. The Court first held that the trial judge’s ruling, whereby she determined the prosecution’s evidence on a gun charge was insufficient to sustain a conviction, constituted an acquittal based on settled Supreme Court precedent. The Court then held that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred the trial judge’s reconsideration of her midtrial acquittal. The majority decision, delivered by Justice Scalia, was based on a solid foundation of Supreme Court jurisprudence and represented the correct resolution to this dispute. Furthermore, the majority’s adherence to established precedent concerning the finality of acquittals was a step in the right direction in order to help clarify the sometimes perplexing area of double jeopardy law.

Part II of this note explores the history behind the Double Jeopardy Clause and illustrates the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Clause. Part II also discusses the history of the acquittal and how it relates to the protection of double jeopardy rights. Part II concludes by discussing the current trend of statutory provisions which allow for the reconsideration of acquittals…. Read More

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