Motions for judgment of acquittal are made in almost all criminal cases. There are 10 basic facts that apply to all motions for acquittal and one special rule for circumstantial evidence cases that judges must follow. Failure to apply the correct analysis could result in reversal.
1 Defense motion at close of evidence: At the close of evidence for either party, the defendant may move for, or the court on its own may order, a judgment of acquittal on one or more of the charges if the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction.
2 The test for direct evidence cases: A defendant’s motion for acquittal is procedurally equivalent to a motion for a directed verdict. The test for granting a motion for a directed verdict is whether the state’s evidence is sufficient to sustain a conviction, after viewing the evidence and all resulting inferences in favor of the state.
3 Jury must have a reasonable doubt: A motion for directed verdict should be granted only where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the government, is such that a reasonably minded jury must have a reasonable doubt as to the existence of any of the essential elements of the crime charged.
4 Prohibition against reserving ruling: The motion for judgment of acquittal is typically made by the defense at the end of the state’s case after the state has rested. If made at that time, the court may not reserve decision of the motion.
5 Weight & credibility of evidence: The sufficiency of the evidence standard does not contemplate the court determining the weight and credibility of the evidence but instead requires the court to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the state.
6 When court may reserve ruling: If the motion is made at the close of defendant’s case, the court may reserve ruling on the motion, submit the case to the jury, and rule before or after verdict. If the court grants the motion after a verdict of guilty, the court must make written findings stating the reasons for the order.
7 Court may ask for clarification: When a motion for judgment of acquittal is made, it is proper for the trial judge to ask the defense attorney where proof beyond a reasonable doubt is lacking.
8 Reopening state’s case: It is within the district court‘s wide discretion to allow the state to reopen its case after a motion for judgment of acquittal is made. The state can only reopen after a motion for judgment of acquittal is made if the request to do so is made before the trial court rules on the motion. Once the motion is granted, jeopardy has attached and the state is precluded from reopening.
9 Motion filed after jury returns a verdict of guilty: If the jury returns a verdict of guilty, a motion for a judgment of acquittal may be brought within 15 days after the jury is discharged or within any further time as the court may fix during the 15-day period. If the court grants the defendant’s motion, the court must make written findings stating the reasons for the order.
10 Circumstantial evidence: While the law does not prefer direct evidence to circumstantial evidence, a conviction based on circumstantial evidence warrants heightened scrutiny.
Judge Alan Pendleton
10th Judicial District
For the complete text of Judge Pendleton’s tip, with citations, visit the Minnesota Judicial Training & Education Blog at www.pendletonupdates.com