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Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty"

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jun 05, 2024

The term "not guilty" means a criminal defendant is not legally accountable for the crime. An "acquittal" is a finding by the jury or judge that the defendant is not guilty after a trial (jury or bench trial). Notably, however, neither necessarily means you are innocent of the crime.

Let's examine the subtle differences between "acquitted" and "not guilty" outcomes in a criminal trial. These outcomes are often thought of as synonymous and accomplish the same thing.

Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty"
There are subtle differences between "acquitted" and "not guilty" outcomes in a criminal trial.

First, both will typically absolve you of responsibility and invoke "double jeopardy" protections so you cannot be re-tried for the same crime. Still, there are some differences between the two that should be understood.

As noted, not guilty means you are not legally answerable for the crime, while an acquittal is a finding by a judge or jury that you are not guilty of the crime.

Again, an acquittal does not always mean you are innocent; instead, it means the district attorney failed to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

An acquittal is not the same as getting criminal charges dismissed, which usually occurs before a jury trial begins. A dismissal of a crime typically occurs because the prosecutor does not have sufficient evidence to support the charges.

A dismissal can also occur because the judge decides a criminal case lacks sufficient support. In that case, you will not have to take your case to trial.

As noted, being "acquitted" and being found "not guilty" both effectively absolve you of any legal accountability for committing a crime because you could not be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Let's cover more details below.

What is an Acquittal?

An acquittal resolves some or all of the factual elements of the offense charged. It's 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 before a judge or a jury trial.

"Acquitted" means that you were found not guilty after a jury or bench trial. A partial acquittal occurs when you are found not guilty of one charge but guilty of a different offense.

Under our criminal justice system, you are not considered "innocent" of a crime if acquitted. Instead, it means that the district attorney failed to prove their case that you committed the crime.

What is Not Guilty?

A not-guilty finding adjudicates that proof at a prior proceeding was insufficient to overcome all reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt. One who is acquitted is judicially discharged from an accusation and is absolved.

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 will render this verdict after a trial.

As noted, it does not mean the court declared you innocent of the crime. Both acquittal and a not-guilty verdict mean the prosecution could not prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After 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 - Quick Facts

To gain an understanding of the nuances between being acquitted and declared not guilty, let's review the following comparisons:

  • Not guilty is a form of acquittal, but it is not the only way to be acquitted.
  • A jury renders a not-guilty verdict but cannot move to acquit the defendant.
  • A not-guilty verdict is based solely on evidence.
  • An acquittal is often based on a variety of factors.
  • When a jury delivers a not guilty verdict, the prosecution doesn't produce enough evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Acquittal means the prosecution cannot prove guilt under any circumstances, not just the absence of evidence.
  • Not guilty verdicts happen after the trial.
  • Acquittals can occur at other times.
  • A defense attorney can file a motion requesting the judge to grant a judgment of acquittal during a trial.
  • Under California Penal Code 1118.1 PC, a lawyer can request a judgment of acquittal after evidence is presented and before jury deliberations, which often eliminates one or more criminal charges.
  • For a judge to render the judgment of acquittal, the lawyer must successfully argue that the evidence presented is insufficient for a conviction.
  • At the federal level, a judge can grant a judgment of acquittal up to 14 days after conviction, effectively overturning the jury's verdict.

What Is a Partial Acquittal?

A partial acquittal is a legal term that refers to a scenario where a defendant is acquitted on some, but not all, of the criminal charges against them.

This might occur in criminal cases where multiple charges were filed, and the jury or judge determines that there is insufficient evidence to convict on all the counts.

For example, suppose John was charged with Penal Code 459 PC burglarizing a home and assaulting the owner. The video camera captured footage of John breaking into the house.

Still, the only evidence of assault is the owner's testimony, and there is no video footage or physical evidence of injury. In this case, John might be acquitted of the charge of assault but still convicted of burglary.

Is An Acquittal the Same as a Dismissal?

As noted, acquittal and dismissal are not the same thing. Consider the following:

  • Acquittal refers to a determination during or after a trial that there is insufficient evidence to prove you guilty.
  • A dismissal effectively "drops" the charges before a criminal case goes to trial based on insufficient evidence, tainted evidence, violation of the defendant's rights, etc.

Also, a dismissal does not necessarily qualify you for "double jeopardy" protection because the district attorney could conceivably bring new charges if new evidence is discovered.

Is An Acquittal the Same as a Dismissal?

A criminal defense lawyer can petition the court to dismiss the case because law enforcement arrested you without probable cause, or the DA made specific errors in the criminal complaint.

Maybe we can argue that there was an unlawful search and seizure or insufficient evidence to support the charges, which often results in the prosecutor dropping the charges.

Reducing criminal charges is a separate matter. It can occur when a prosecutor charges you with a lesser offense, such as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Typically, a reduction in charges is part of a plea bargain. Contact our law firm for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based 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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