Judgement of Acquittal
The following exchange can usually be heard at the end of the presentation of the State’s case-in-chief in any criminal courtroom in Florida.
“Your Honor, the State rests.”
“What says the defense?” asks the Court.
“Your Honor, the defense moves for a judgment of acquittal.”
Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 3.380[i] outlines the rules for making a motion for judgment of acquittal, sometimes referred to as simply a JOA. The purpose of the motion is to challenge the legal sufficiency of the evidence presented at trial. If the prosecution presents competent evidence to establish each element of the offense charged, the JOA should be denied because the State has proven a prima facie case.[ii] The trial court should not grant a JOA unless the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the state, fails to establish the prima facie case.[iii]
In moving for a JOA, the defendant admits not only to the facts stated in evidence (e.g., the testimony presented at trial), but also every reasonable conclusion favorable to the State that the fact finder might fairly infer from the evidence. It is the trial judge’s task to review the evidence to determine the presence or absence of competent evidence from which the jury could infer guilt to the exclusion of all other references.[iv] It is a very, very low burden of proof – prima facie - because the motion tests is there any evidence that a jury could base a conviction on if the jury convicted.
To understand how this particular motion works, you have to start with crime charged and whatever its elements are that have to be proven and work backwards. For instance, assume that the defendant is charged with resisting an officer without violence.[v] According to the statute and standard jury instruction, the State must prove the following four (4) elements:
1. (Defendant) [resisted] [obstructed] [opposed] (victim).
2. At the time, (victim) was engaged in the [execution of legal process] [lawful execution of a legal duty].
3. At the time, (victim) was [an officer] [a person legally authorized to execute process].
4. At the time, (defendant) knew (victim) was [an officer] [a person legally authorized to execute process].
In this scenario, let us also assume that the victim was a local deputy sheriff who was working in an official capacity when he approached the defendant to arrest him on a warrant for a violation of probation. At trial, the deputy gets on the stand and testifies that on the day in question he came upon the defendant because the defendant committed a minor traffic infraction. The deputy was in uniform and driving a marked patrol car. While conducting the traffic stop, the deputy learned that the defendant had a misdemeanor warrant for a violation of probation. Before the deputy could arrest the defendant on the valid warrant, the defendant exited the car and attempted to run away from the deputy. After a short foot race, the defendant is caught, arrested, and charged with resisting without violence.
If the deputy testifies to the above facts, then the State should survive the JOA motion because the motion is not concerned with the credibility of the deputy,[vi] but the mechanics of presenting a piece of testimony or evidence, no matter how small or brief, that touches on each element. The question is simply this: was there adequate evidence to support a conviction? If yes, then the motion is denied; if no, then the motion is granted.[vii] Basically, because credibility is not a factor for the court to consider, the witnesses need to simply say something under oath about each element (provided that the witness has first-hand knowledge about the element).
On the other hand, change the above scenario ever so slightly. In the updated scenario, the deputy has no reason to stop the car but does anyway and the defendant does not have warrant. The deputy’s testimony might not adequately present any evidence that the deputy was engaged in the “lawful execution of a legal duty.” Under this scenario and “all things being equal,” the trial court would be correct in granting the JOA because the State would have failed to present any evidence of “lawful execution of a legal duty.”
There are real world consequences to a successfully granted JOA motion. Depending on when the motion is granted, the defendant may be acquitted forever. If the trial court grants the JOA at the end of the State’s case-in-chief or at the end of all the evidence, but before the jury renders a guilty verdict, then the case is concluded. The defendant is acquitted – forever. Additionally, the state may not appeal the granting of the motion at that juncture no matter how erroneous the trial court’s ruling may have seemed.[viii] The case is over, and the State may not re-try the defendant on the charges because the “double jeopardy” clause.[ix] On the other hand, if the trial court grants the JOA after the jury has returned a guilty verdict, the State may appeal the JOA.[x]
When the State’s case is purely circumstantial and has no direct evidence of guilt, then the trial court is required to apply the following rule, “Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”[xi]
In Jaramillo,[xii] the State’s case was completely circumstantial. The evidence showed that the defendant’s fingerprints were found inside the murder victim’s house on a water glass in her cabinet. The defendant had offered an explanation that that he was part of the moving company that moved the victim into her apartment. The fingerprint on the water glass was the only evidence the State offered against the defendant showing guilt. The State did not offer any explanation how the fingerprints got on those items or any rebuttal that the defendant was part of the moving company that moved the victim into her apartment a few weeks earlier. In that case, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the conviction and discharged the defendant because the evidence was legally insufficient to support a prima facie case against him. The State’s evidence did not and could rule of the “reasonable hypothesis of innocence”[xiii] that the fingerprint on the water glass was deposited some time before the homicide.
JOA motions are not a simple formality and should be taken extremely seriously by the defense attorney. Proper JOA motions require planning to provide the court with the proper case law to support the argument. In rare cases, a keen defense attorney will recognize that the prosecutors either missed a critical element of proof or ran afoul of the case law on some point and raise in impromptu JOA argument. On the other hand, boilerplate motions are essentially useless under the case law and provide no value to the defense.
If you have a question about JOAs, please contact www.candelalawfirm.com or Anthony Candela at (813) 417-3645 to discuss. The purpose of this blog is purely education/information and should not viewed as creating any attorney-client privilege between the reader and author.
Anthony Candela is a Board-Certified attorney. He opened the Candela Law Firm, P.A. in 2014 and handles primarily criminal trials and appeals. He received his J.D. from Duquesne University School of Law in 2000 and his B.A. in Political Science from King’s College in 1996. He was board certified by the Florida Bar in Criminal Trial in August 2008, recertified August 2013 and is pending recertification in 2018. He is also admitted to the Middle District of Florida and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeal. #candelalawfirm #agoodtampadefenselawyer
[i] Rule 3.380. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal
(a) Timing. If, at the close of the evidence for the state or at the close of all the evidence in the cause, the court is of the opinion that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction, it may, and on the motion of the prosecuting attorney or the defendant shall, enter a judgment of acquittal.
(b) Waiver. A motion for judgment of acquittal is not waived by subsequent introduction of evidence on behalf of the defendant. The motion must fully set forth the grounds on which it is based.
(c) Renewal. If the jury returns a verdict of guilty or is discharged without having returned a verdict, the defendant’s motion may be made or renewed within 10 days after the reception of a verdict and the jury is discharged or such further time as the court may allow.
[ii] “prima facie” is Latin for “at first blush” but has come to mean “based on the first impression” or “accepted as correct until proven otherwise.” The “accepted as correct until proven otherwise” is the perfect definition for how the phrase is used in criminal court. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/prima-facie?s=t
[iii] State v. Odoms, 862 So.2d 56, 59 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003).
[v] §843.02, Fla. Stat.
[vi] The existence of contradictory, conflicting testimony or evidence does not warrant a judgment of acquittal because the weight of the evidence and the witnesses’ credibility are questions solely for the jury. State v. Shearod, 992 So.2d 900 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008). See also Donaldson v. State, 722 So.2d 177 (Fla. 1998).
[vii] When considering a motion for judgment of acquittal, a trial court must determine as a matter of law whether the evidence presented was adequate to support a conviction. Ferebee v. State, 967 So.2d 1071 (Fla. 2d DCA 2007).
[viii] See Hudson v. State, 711 So.2d 244 (Fla. 1st DCA 1998).
[ix] When the trial court announces it is granting a JOA and the arguments for and against are concluded, the court cannot at some time later rescind the decision. Permitting a case to go to a jury after the trial court has granted a JOA violates double jeopardy. See Caldwell v. State, 802 So.2d 839 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001); Boone v. State, 805 So.2d 1040 (Fla. 4th DCA 2002); and WBS v. State, 851 So.2d 802 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003).
[x] See § 924.07, Fla. Stat.; and Hudson, supra.
[xi] In a wholly circumstantial case, the evidence must exclude any reasonable hypothesis of innocence. “Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” Jaramillo, 417 So. 2d at 257 (citing McArthur v. State, 351 So. 2d 972, 976 n.12 (Fla. 1977) (Where the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence. Davis v. State, 90 So. 2d 629 (Fla. 1956); Mayo v. State, 71 So. 2d 899 (Fla. 1954); Head v. State, 62 So. 2d 41 (Fla. 1952). (The meaning of “not inconsistent” may be sufficiently different from “consistent” as to prevent a substitution of terms.) In applying the standard, the version of events related by the defense must be believed if the circumstances do not show that version to be false. Mayo v. State, above; Holton v. State, 87 Fla. 65, 99 So. 244 (1924).) “We conclude that the State’s evidence was not legally sufficient to establish a prima facie case against Jaramillo. Accordingly, we reverse his convictions for first-degree murder and remand to the trial court with directions to discharge him” Jaramillo, 417 So. 2d at 258. (Emphasis added).
[xii] State v. Law, 559 So.2d 187 (Fla. 1989); Jaramillo v. State, 417 So.2d 257 (Fla. 1982); and McArthur v. State, 351 So. 2d 972 (Fla. 1977).
[xiii] The rationale goes something like this: if the State has presented entirely circumstantial evidence (meaning there was no direct evidence of guilt) and the State has to prove all the elements of the offense “beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt” but cannot rebut and/or rule out a “reasonable hypothesis of innocence,” then the proof against the defendant is not legally sufficient and becomes somewhat of a jump ball or a 50/50 proposition. A 50/50 proposition or a “jump ball” (meaning it could go either way) is never going to meet the highest burden of proof known as “beyond and to the exclusion of a reasonable doubt,” and, therefore, the JOA should be granted in that scenario. On the other hand, if the circumstantial evidence can safely rule out a “reasonable hypothesis of innocence,” then the JOA should not be granted and the evidence should be presented to the jury for its verdict. Make no mistake, if the evidence is circumstantial and falls into that “jump ball” category, then the JOA should be granted.