The feds are yet again trying to have their cake and eat it too, this time regarding constitutional criminal procedure. The Double Jeopardy Clause prevents the government from using its immense resources to prosecute criminal defendants twice for the same crime. Still, if a defendant’s first trial results in a hung jury, or the conviction is reversed on appeal, the trial is a legal “non-event” and the government can seek a new trial. If the defendant is acquitted, however, then no new trial is possible; the acquittal precludes a second try because that would be “double jeopardy.”
In a new case out of Puerto Rico, the government is trying to claim that acquittals can also be “non-events” that allow retrial. Juan Bravo-Fernandez and Hector Martinez-Maldonado received a mixed verdict at trial: they were acquitted on two charges—conspiring and travelling to bribe a member of the Puerto Rican Senate—but convicted of the actual bribery. But the two acquittals necessarily depended on a finding that neither defendant violated the bribery statute. Indeed, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the bribery conviction because the jury’s verdict was improperly based on invalid instructions from the trial judge.
That left one vacated conviction and two acquittals that logically required a finding of “not guilty” on the bribery charge. At that point, double jeopardy should have kicked in; the acquittals precluded a retrial regarding the underlying bribery. As the Supreme Court said in Yeager v. United States (2009), any “apparent inconsistency between a jury’s verdict of acquittal on some counts and its failure to return a verdict on other counts” does not “affect the preclusive force of the acquittals under the Double Jeopardy Clause.”