Superior Court: Motion For New Trial Does Not Preclude Double Jeopardy Protection

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ January 21, 2014

On January 9, the Superior Court held in Commonwealth v. Minnis that a defendant who moves for a new trial does not necessarily waive his constitutional protection against double jeopardy, overruling its own decision in Commonwealth v. Constant, 925 A.2d 810 (2007). Defendant James Minnis was charged with and found guilty of sexually abusing his girlfriend’s daughter. However, after an investigation into the activities of expert witness Rhonda Henderson, R.N., the Erie County District Attorney sent notices to defendants whose cases involved Henderson, including Minnis. Minnis then petitioned for post-conviction relief, seeking dismissal of the charges on double jeopardy grounds, or in the alternative, a new trial. In Pennsylvania, protection from double jeopardy applies when there was prosecutorial misconduct that was intended to provoke the defendant into moving for a mistrial, or when the prosecutor’s conduct was intended to prejudice the defendant to the point of denial of a fair trial. Commonwealth v. Martorano, 741 A.2d 1221, 1223 (Pa. 1999). After opposition to the double jeopardy claim from the prosecution, the trial court granted the petition for relief in the form of a new trial and found that Minnis waived his double jeopardy argument by moving for a new trial. Minnis appealed to the Superior Court.

The Commonwealth argued that the Superior Court’s ruling in Constant, which held that a defendant is not protected from double jeopardy if he moves for a new trial as opposed to a mistrial, precluded Minnis from seeking dismissal of the charges based on double jeopardy. Minnis, however, argued that the Superior Court decided Constant incorrectly. The Superior Court sided with Minnis and overruled Constant, finding that it was inconsistent with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Commonwealth v. Potter, 386 A.2d 918, 921 (1978), which held that double jeopardy protection does not turn on “nice procedural distinctions”, i.e., moving for a mistrial instead of a new trial. As such, the court held that Minnis’ double jeopardy argument was not waived by moving for a new trial. Whether or not the prosecution was engaged in misconduct, however, is yet to be determined.

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