MDJ’s summary trial verdict is binding on appeal

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ October 17, 2016

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in a 5-1 decision that a prosecutor violates a defendant’s double jeopardy right by trying him a second time on a charge for which he was acquitted by a Magisterial District Judge. If a defendant is found guilty of a lesser-included offense rather than the one the Commonwealth charged and the defendant decides to appeal his conviction, the defendant has not voluntarily waived his constitutional right against double jeopardy.

While the case may appear small in the big scheme of things, for Mr. Ball this case was everything. It will likewise have major ramifications in summary trials for many others. A Mechanicsburg police officer stopped Ball for speeding. When reviewing Ball’s driving record, the officer learned that Ball’s license was suspended as a result of a prior DUI conviction. Ball received a citation for driving while operating privileges were suspended relating to a DUI conviction (DUS-DUI). Ball proceeded to a summary trial where he was found guilty of driving while operating privileges were suspended, the lesser-included offense of DUS-DUI. Ball appealed his conviction to the trial court and the Commonwealth reinstated the greater offense of DUS-DUI over Ball’s double jeopardy objection. Ball was found guilty of DUS-DUI. This was big because DUS-DUI carries a mandatory minimum of 60 days in jail whereas the lesser charge carries no mandatory jail time. Ball appealed his new conviction to the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the court revered the trial court’s conviction finding that “it was impermissible to retry Ball and the court’s adjudication of guilt … was a legal nullity.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had to determine “whether the constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy barred the Commonwealth from reinstating Ball’s implicity acquitted greater offense.” It should be noted that Ball was only implicitly found not guilty of the greater DUS-DUI charge, since the Court found him guilty of the lesser charge and made no mention of the greater charge.

The Commonwealth’s main argument before the Court was that the prohibition against double jeopardy is not implicated when a defendant voluntarily subjects himself to further prosecution and therefore a defendant waives his constitutional right against double jeopardy when appealing his case.

The Court did not buy that argument. Rather, Justice Wecht writing for the majority stated that “where there has been an acquittal on one account and a conviction on another, a new trial can be granted only on the one count on which there has been a conviction.”

The prohibition against double jeopardy is a pillar in American criminal law and is perhaps one of the most fundamental constitutional rights. While some constitutional rights may be waived, the Court stressed that such waiver must be knowing and voluntary. A defendant does not knowingly and voluntarily waive his right against double jeopardy by exercising his constitutional right to appeal.

Only one Justice declined to sign on to the majority opinion and wrote a dissent insisting that the prohibition against double jeopardy does not apply to Ball’s case and that the majority’s opinion will have far-reaching legal consequences in the long run. Justice Baer wrote that when a defendant appeals a conviction by a district judge he is reopening his entire case, as if the first trial never existed.

The majority held that “[t]he law attaches significance to an acquittal. To permit a second trial after an acquittal however mistaken the acquittal may have been would present an unacceptably high risk that the Government … might wear down the defendant so that even though innocent, he may be found guilty.”

Do you think the Court was right in finding that a defendant does not voluntarily waive his right against double jeopardy when appealing his case, or do you agree with Justice Baer that if a defendant appeals his conviction he is acting as if the first trial never existed and therefore should be tried on charges he was acquitted of? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

To read the court opinion in its entirety, click here.

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