Criminal Law

Acquittal Definition

What Is an Acquittal?

At the end of a trial, a judge or jury can choose to "acquit" someone by finding them not guilty. This can apply to some — or all — of the criminal charges. Acquitting a criminal defendant happens when the evidence does not support the charges or the prosecution does not prove their case.

Acquittance can also be called absolution, exoneration, exculpation, or a "judgment of acquittal."

Key Takeaways

  • Saying "the defendant is acquitted of all charges" means they won the case and are free to go.
  • Acquittal releases you from any guilt, obligations to the court, and from any sentence.
  • You can be acquitted of some charges but still found guilty of a lesser-included offense.
  • The prosecution can't appeal an acquittal.

Understanding Acquittal

Once you know the exact charge of an offense, you and your attorney will determine how to plead your case. If you plead guilty or no contest then you won't go to trial and can't be acquitted.

If you plead not guilty and go to trial, the judge or jury will listen to the evidence and make their decision. The government must convince the jury "beyond a reasonable doubt" that you committed the crime. If there is reasonable doubt, the jury is obligated to acquit you.

Double Jeopardy in Acquittals

If the jury acquits you of a specific charge, such as theft, you can't go back to trial for that charge again (for the same allegations). Trying someone for the same charge is called "double jeopardy" because you are being placed "in jeopardy" twice.

When Double Jeopardy Doesn't Apply

The prosecution may have the option of charging you with a new crime. In order to charge you for a new crime, however, the elements the prosecution has to prove must be different in at least one respect. In other words, it is not considered a new crime if the prosecution is trying to prove the same thing twice.

The jury can also acquit you of a more serious charge, such as robbery, but find you guilty of a lesser-included offense, like trespassing. This just means the jury found you guilty of some of the actions the government is alleging, but not all.

Finally, double jeopardy only applies to criminal charges, not civil actions. So, for example, you could be acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and not face any sentence or criminal consequences, but still later be sued in civil court for wrongful death and found liable, meaning you would have to compensate the family of the deceased.

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