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What’s the Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty?"

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Sep 29, 2023

Let's review the subtle differences between "acquitted" and "not guilty" outcomes in a criminal trial, which are often interchanged as synonymous with each other and accomplish the same thing.

Either determination in a criminal trial will absolve you of responsibility and invoke "double jeopardy" protections so you can't be re-tried for the same crime. But there are still some subtle differences in these terms should not be overlooked.

What’s the Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty?"
While "acquitted" and "not guilty" in a criminal trial accomplish the same thing, there are differences.

Simply put, not guilty means that a defendant is not legally accountable for the criminal charge filed against them. An acquittal is a finding by a judge or jury that a defendant is not guilty of the charged crime.

An acquittal does not necessarily mean the defendant is innocent in a criminal case. Instead, it means that the prosecutor failed to prove that the defendant was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Suppose a judge or jury acquits a defendant. Double jeopardy would apply in that case, and the defendant could not face further prosecution for the same offense in the same jurisdiction.

Further, an acquittal is not the same as getting criminal charges dismissed, which would typically occur before a jury trial. A dismissal of criminal charges commonly occurs because the prosecutor does not believe sufficient evidence supports the charges.

A dismissal could also occur because the judge decides a case lacks sufficient support to go forward. If a criminal case is dismissed against a defendant, they will not have to stand trial.

What's the Definition of Acquitted and Not Guilty?

Being "acquitted" and being found "not guilty" both effectively absolve you of legal accountability for the commission of a crime because you could not be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Let's start by defining each of these terms and then discuss their subtleties.

Definition of Acquitted and Not Guilty
A not-guilty verdict in a trial is a form of acquittal, saying you are not answerable for the charges.

What is an Acquittal? 

An acquittal is a formal recognition by the court that you are released from accusation and freed from obligation regarding the charges. Acquittal can be rendered in a bench trial (i.e., in front of the judge) or a jury trial.

In other words, “acquitted” means that they found the defendant not guilty after a jury trial or a bench trial. A partial acquittal is when a defendant is found not guilty of one charge but guilty of a different offense.

Notably, under our criminal justice system, a defendant is not considered “innocent” of a crime if acquitted. It just means that a prosecutor failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that they committed the crime.

What is Not Guilty?

A not-guilty verdict in a criminal trial is a form of acquittal that says you are not legally answerable for the charges. The jury renders this verdict after a trial.

It should be noted that neither of these terms suggests or confirms that you are innocent of the crime. Both acquittal and a not-guilty verdict mean the prosecution could not prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, once you are acquitted or declared not guilty, your "Double Jeopardy" Fifth Amendment protections kick in, and you cannot be tried again for the same crime.

Acquittal vs. Not Guilty Verdict

To understand the nuances between being acquitted and declared not guilty, let's look at the following vital comparisons:

  • "Not guilty" is a form of acquittal, but it is not the only way to be acquitted. A jury hands down a not-guilty verdict, but either a judge or jury can move to acquit the defendant.
  • A not-guilty verdict is based solely on evidence; acquittal can be based on other factors. When a jury delivers a verdict of "not guilty," it means the prosecution didn't produce enough evidence to convict you beyond a reasonable doubt. Acquittal effectively means the prosecution cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt under any circumstances--not just the absence of evidence.
  • "Not guilty" verdicts happen at the conclusion of the trial; acquittal can happen at other times. At other times during a trial, a defense attorney can file a motion requesting the judge to grant a judgment of acquittal. The rules for such motions differ from state to state and federal level. At the federal level, for example, a judge can grant a judgment of acquittal up to 14 days after conviction, effectively overturning the jury's verdict.

When Can You Request a Judgment of Acquittal in California?

In California, under Penal Code 1118.1 PC, a defense attorney may request a judgment of acquittal after the evidence is presented and before the case goes to the jury. This strategy often eliminates one or more charges before the jury deliberates.

For a judge to render the judgment of acquittal, the attorney must successfully argue that the evidence presented by the prosecution is insufficient to obtain a conviction.

What Is a Partial Acquittal?

A partial acquittal is a legal term referring to a situation where a defendant is acquitted on some, but not all, of the charges against them. This can occur in cases where multiple charges have been brought, and the jury or judge determines that there is insufficient evidence to convict on all counts.

Example: Bob is charged with burglarizing a home and assaulting the homeowner. The home's video cameras have captured video of Bob breaking into the house. Still, the only evidence of assault is the homeowner's testimony, with no video footage or physical evidence of injury. In this case, Bob might be acquitted of the charge of assault but still convicted of burglary.

Is Acquittal the Same as Dismissal?

No, acquittal and dismissal are not the same thing. Acquittal refers to a determination during or after the trial that there is insufficient evidence to prove you guilty.

Is Acquittal the Same as Dismissal?
Contact our criminal defense lawyers for help.

A dismissal effectively " drops" the charges before the case goes to trial based on insufficient evidence, tainted evidence, violation of the defendant's rights, etc. Additionally, a dismissal does not necessarily qualify you for "double jeopardy" protection; prosecutors could conceivably bring new charges if new evidence is found.

A criminal defense attorney could petition the court to dismiss the case because police arrested the defendant without probable cause or the DA made specific errors in the criminal complaint. Perhaps there was an unlawful search and seizure, and insufficient evidence supports the charges, often resulting in the prosecutor dropping the charges.

Notably, the reduction of charges is a separate matter. This could occur when a prosecutor or judge charges the defendant with a lesser offense, such as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. A reduction in charges often is part of a plea deal.

You can contact our law firm for a case review by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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