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Written by Attorney Seth Morris


When you have been charged with a criminal offense and are exploring your defense options, you may hear legal jargon that doesn’t necessarily make sense. For example, many people facing criminal charges often believe an acquittal and being found not guilty are the same thing.

Although they are similar, an acquittal and a not guilty verdict mean two different things. Here is more about some differences between acquittals and not guilty verdicts.

What is an Acquittal?

When a defendant is acquitted, the jury or judge presiding over their case finds them not guilty of the alleged crime. However, that does not mean the judge or jury agrees the defendant is innocent — a critical distinction between an acquittal and a not-guilty verdict.

When Is an Acquittal Obtained?

An acquittal is obtained when the state’s prosecuting attorney cannot prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden of proof in a criminal case is high because of the harsh penalties defendants face when convicted, making it challenging for prosecutors to fulfill this standard. Note that if a defendant is acquitted of a crime, they can still be held liable in a civil case.

Take the O.J. Simpson case, for example. Simpson’s attorneys obtained an acquittal in criminal court for the alleged murders due to the prosecution’s failure to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; however, Simpson was later found liable for wrongful death in civil court and ordered to pay punitive damages.

What Is a Not Guilty Verdict?

Under the law, if a defendant is found not guilty, they are not legally answerable to the charges against them.

This often occurs in cases where a defendant is charged with one or more crimes, and the state’s prosecuting attorney only has sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for just one of the charges.

When Is a Not Guilty Verdict Obtained?

A not guilty verdict is obtained when the state’s prosecuting attorney lacks sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a subtle difference from an acquittal, which is issued when the prosecutor cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for any reason, not only due to lack of evidence.

Is an Acquittal the Same as a Dismissal?

It should also be noted that acquittals are not the same as having charges dismissed. A dismissal occurs when:

  • The judge determines the charges lack sufficient evidence
  • The prosecutor withdraws charges when they cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt
  • There was an unlawful search or seizure
  • Law enforcement committed an unlawful arrest
  • The district attorney made procedural mistakes

Dismissals occur before a trial begins, while acquittals occur after a trial has commenced. In this way, the defendant is no longer being tried for the charges against them.

Is a Dismissal the Same as Reduced Charges?

Getting your charges dismissed is different from getting your charges reduced as well. The prosecutor may allow for you to enter into a plea agreement or charge you with a lesser offense to avoid severe penalties.

For example, the prosecuting attorney may agree to reduce your charges from a DUI to a wet reckless if your professional reputation was on the line and no aggravating factors were present.

What Is a Partial Acquittal?

After a criminal trial has commenced, if a defendant has been charged with multiple crimes and is found not guilty on one or more of the offenses but guilty on one or more of the other offenses, this is known as a partial acquittal.

For example, let’s say you were charged with drug possession and distribution. If the prosecutor lacked the evidence to support the drug distribution charges, but you were found guilty of the drug possession charges, this would be a partial acquittal.

What Is Double Jeopardy & How Does it Apply to An Acquittal?

The double jeopardy clause is within the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It states that no one can be convicted twice for the same offense, be prosecuted after being acquitted for the same criminal offense, or face multiple punishments for the same crime.

When a judge or jury issues an acquittal, double jeopardy is attached. This means the defendant cannot be prosecuted for that particular offense a second time.

However, it should be noted that if you were charged with a crime in state court, you could still face criminal charges in federal court despite double jeopardy being attached. This is also true for those acquitted in federal court but not at the state level.

Contact a California Criminal Defense Attorney for Help Today

When facing criminal charges, your freedom could be on the line. Understanding the difference between an acquittal and not guilty verdict could be instrumental in helping you prepare your defense strategy.

Reach out to an experienced California criminal defense lawyer at Morris Law, A Criminal Defense Firm to start working on your case as soon as today. Reach our office by phone or our secured contact form to schedule your confidential consultation.