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Kentucky Supreme Court Overrules Flawed Brindley Opinion and Announces Commonwealth Cannot Appeal Judgment of Acquittal

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Kentucky held that the Commonwealth cannot appeal from a judgment of acquittal in a criminal case after a jury’s guilty verdict, interpreting the Kentucky Constitution and overturning its prior decision on the issue.

Michael Maupin was charged with failing to comply with Kentucky’s sex offender registry after law enforcement was unable to locate him at the homeless shelter he listed as his residence. Maupin’s name was listed only two times in a month’s span on the shelter’s sign-in sheet. The Commonwealth convinced a jury that this proved Maupin was not at his approved residence, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Maupin moved for a new trial or for a judgment of acquittal. The trial court granted Maupin’s motion for acquittal, ruling that the Commonwealth’s proof was insufficient because the sign-in sheet was equivocal at best and that the officer’s single attempt to locate him did not justify a criminal conviction. The Commonwealth appealed, and a divided panel of the Court of Appeals reinstated Maupin’s conviction. The Kentucky Supreme Court granted Maupin discretionary review.

Section 115 of the Kentucky Constitution provides that “in all cases, civil or criminal, there shall be allowed as a matter of right at least one appeal to another court.” However, Section 115 also states that “the Commonwealth may not appeal from a judgment of acquittal in a criminal case, other than for the purpose of securing a certification of law.” The Commonwealth did not appeal for the purpose of securing a certification of law, so the question before the Supreme Court was whether the Commonwealth had the authority to appeal the judgment of acquittal.

This specific issue had already been addressed by the Kentucky Supreme Court on two occasions. First, in Burris v. Commonwealth, 590 S.W.2d 878 (Ky. 1979), the Court held “that the Commonwealth was barred from securing appellate review of [a] judgment n.o.v. by [Section 115] of our Constitution.” The Court explained that a judgment n.o.v. (judgment notwithstanding the verdict) is the functional equivalent of an acquittal, so the plain language of Section 115 bars the Commonwealth’s appeal of that ruling. In explaining why the Commonwealth was barred from retrying the case, the Court cited to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Burks v. United States, 437 U.S. 1 (1978), for its holding “that the Double Jeopardy Clause prevents a second trial for the purpose of affording the prosecution with another opportunity to supply such evidence it failed to produce in the first trial.”

Since the Court had already held that the judgment N.O.V. could not be appealed (i.e., the acquittal stands), the Court’s extraneous discussion of why the defendant could not be retried would lead to confusion and flawed legal analysis seven years later by the Kentucky Supreme Court in Brindley.    

Next, in Commonwealth v. Brindley, 724 S.W.2d 214 (Ky. 1986), the Kentucky Supreme Court overruled Burris. In Brindley, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for a judgment N.O.V. The Commonwealth appealed, and the Supreme Court held that Section 115 “does not prevent an appeal by the Commonwealth when a jury has returned a verdict of guilty which has been set aside by a ruling of law to a post-verdict motion.” In reaching its conclusion, the Court cited to the Burris Court’s Double Jeopardy Clause discussion and concluded that Section 115 has its origin in the prohibition against double jeopardy in Section 13 of the Kentucky Constitution, which is identical to its federal counterpart.

However, it must be noted that the Burris Court’s discussion of double jeopardy related only to why the defendant could not be retried, not as a rationale as to why an acquittal cannot be appealed (or judgment N.O.V. set aside and conviction reinstated).

Finally, the Kentucky Supreme Court in the present case rectified the wrong it perpetrated in Brindley by overruling it. The Court did so easily by announcing: “We reject Brindley’s arguments that Section 115 derives itself from Section 13 of the Kentucky Constitution and that the Commonwealth may appeal the granting of a judgment n.o.v.” It went on to state that Section 115 “is separate and distinct from Section 13 and the Fifth Amendment and in no way grounds itself in the Double Jeopardy Clause.” The Court instructed that “Section 115 is clear on its face” that the Commonwealth may not appeal from a judgment of acquittal in a criminal case.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court’s judgment. The Kentucky Supreme Court added we “also overrule any precedent stating that Section 115 derives itself from Section 13 of the Kentucky Constitution and that the Commonwealth may appeal a judgment n.o.v. See: Maupin v. Commonwealth, 542 S.W.3d 926 (Ky. 2018). 

Related legal case

Maupin v. Commonwealth




 

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