Smalis v. Pennsylvania
Decided on May 5, 1986; 476 US 140


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (procedure), 6th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Double Jeopardy Clause bar the prosecution from appealing a demurrer which results in an acquittal?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Petitioners, husband and wife, who owned a building housing a restaurant and apartments, were charged with various crimes in connection with a fire in the building that resulted in the killing of two tenants. At the close of the prosecution's case at their bench trial in a Pennsylvania state court, petitioners challenged the sufficiency of the evidence by filling a demurrer pursuant to a Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure. The trial court sustained the demurrer, and the Pennsylvania Superior Court quashed the Commonwealth's appeal on the ground that it was barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, holding that the granting of a demurrer is not the functional equivalent of an acquittal and that, for purposes of considering a plea of double jeopardy, a defendant who demurs at the close of the prosecution's case in chief "elects to seek dismissal on grounds unrelated to his factual guilt or innocence."

The US Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Norma Chase argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs was Thomas A. Livingston.
Robert L. Eberhardt argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Charles S. Sims filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. as amici curiae urging reversal. Deputy Solicitor General Frey argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging affirmance. With him on the brief was Solicitor General Fried, Assistant Attorney General Trott, and Alan I. Horowitz.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The Pennsylvania Supreme Court erred in holding that, for purposes of considering a plea of double jeopardy, a defendant who demurs at the close of the prosecution's case in chief 'elects to seek dismissal on grounds unrelated to his factual guilt or innocence.' Commonwealth v. Zoller... What the demurring defendant seeks is a ruling that, as a matter of law, the State's evidence is insufficient to establish his factual guilt. Our past decisions, which we are not inclined to reconsider at this time, hold that such a ruling is an acquittal under the Double Jeopardy Clause. See, e.g., United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co., supra; Sanabria v. United States. United States v. Scott does not overturn these precedents; indeed, it plainly indicates that the category of acquittals includes 'judgment[s]... by the court that the evidence is insufficient to convict...'

The Commonwealth argues that its appeal is nonetheless permissible under Justices of Boston Municipal Court v. Lydon... because resumption of petitioners' bench trial following a reversal on appeal would simply constitute 'continuing jeopardy...' Thus, whether the trial is to a jury or to the bench, subjecting the defendant to postacquittal factfinding proceedings going to guilt or innocence violates the Double Jeopardy Clause...

When a successful postacquittal appeal by the prosecution would lead to proceedings that violate the Double Jeopardy Clause, the appeal itself has no proper purpose. Allowing such an appeal would frustrate the interest of the accused in having an end to the proceedings against him. The Superior Court was correct, therefore, in holding that the Double Jeopardy Clause bars a postacquittal appeal by the prosecution not only when it might result in a second trial, but also if reversal would translate into 'further proceedings of some sort, devoted to the resolution of factual issues going to the elements of the offense charged...'

We hold, therefore, that the trial judge's granting of petitioners' demurrer was an acquittal under the Double Jeopardy Clause, and that the Commonwealth's appeal was barred because reversal would have led to further trial proceedings...

Held: The judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is reversed."

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • White, B.  Pro  (Wrote the majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion
  • Marshall, T.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W.  Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.