Definition of acquittal
acquittal (plural acquittals)
- The act of acquitting; discharge from debt or obligation; acquittance.
- (Law) A setting free, or deliverance from the charge of an offense, by verdict of a jury or sentence of a court.
In the common law tradition, an acquittal formally certifies the innocence of the accused, as far as the criminal law is concerned. This is so even where the prosecution is abandoned nolle prosequi. Under the rules of double jeopardy and autrefois acquit, an acquittal operates to bar the retrial of the accused for the same offense, even if new evidence surfaces that further implicates the accused. The effect of an acquittal on criminal proceedings is the same whether it results from a jury verdict, or whether it results from the operation of some other rule that discharges the accused.
Scots law has two acquittal verdicts: not guilty and not proven. However a verdict of "not proven" does not give rise to the double jeopardy rule.
England and Wales
In England and Wales, which share a common legal system, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 creates an exception to the double jeopardy rule, by providing that retrials may be ordered if "new and compelling evidence" comes to light after an acquittal for a serious crime. Also the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 permits a "tainted acquittal" to be set aside in circumstances where it is proved beyond reasonable doubt that an acquittal has been obtained by violence or threats of violence to a witness or juror/s.
In modern England and Wales, and in all countries that substantially follow English criminal procedure, an acquittal normally results in the immediate liberation of the defendant from custody, assuming no other charges against the defendant remain to be tried. However, until 1774 a defendant acquitted by an English or Welsh court would be remanded to jail until he had paid the jailer for the costs of his confinement. It was known for acquitted persons to die in jail for lack of jailer's fees.
With one exception, in the United States an acquittal cannot be appealed by the prosecution because of constitutional prohibitions against double jeopardy. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled:
- If the judgment is upon an acquittal, the defendant, indeed, will not seek to have it reversed, and the government cannot. U. S. v. Sanges, 144 U.S. 310 (1892). Ball v. U.S., 163 U.S. 662, 671 (1896)
- A verdict of acquittal, although not followed by any judgment, is a bar to a subsequent prosecution for the same offense. Ball, supra, at 672.
- Society's awareness of the heavy personal strain which a criminal trial represents for the individual defendant is manifested in the willingness to limit the Government to a single criminal proceeding to vindicate its very vital interest in enforcement of criminal laws. United States v. Jorn, 400 U.S. 470, 479 (1971)
- Whether the trial is to a jury or, as here, to the bench, subjecting the defendant to postacquittal factfinding proceedings going to guilt or innocence violates the Double Jeopardy Clause. Smalis v. Pennsylvania, 476 U.S. 140 (1986)
- Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.