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Montana Supreme Court: Retrial Following Mistrial Declared Without 
‘Manifest Necessity’ Violates Prohibition on Double Jeopardy

by Mark Wilson

The Supreme Court of Montana held that a municipal court violated state and federal double jeopardy prohibitions when it declared a mistrial and ordered a new trial.

James Joseph Huertas was charged in Billings Municipal Court with Partner or Family Member Assault (“PFMA”). The victim was identified only as L.H.

Trial was originally held on January 20, 2017. During the City’s case-in-chief, it called L.H. to testify. She admitted she did not want to be there and was not happy about testifying. During cross-examination, L.H. revealed that Billings Police Department Officer LaMantia attempted to influence her testimony.

The jury was excused, and L.H. elaborated that at about 11 p.m., the night before trial, her roommate let Officer LaMantia into their home. LaMantia sat next to L.H. on the couch and served her with a subpoena to appear the next day.

The judge asked the City if it was aware of the contact. The City Attorney claimed to be surprised by the information, saying it had a “significant impact” on its case. The City suggested that LaMantia may have engaged in witness tampering and argued that it could not proceed with trial because it needed to interview LaMantia and L.H.

The court found that Huertas and L.H. were personally acquainted with LaMantia when he served the subpoena. L.H. reported that LaMantia said he wanted to give her “friendly advice as a friend” and said she needed to be at trial, so Huertas would be “punished for everything that he has done.” LaMantia told her to “ignore the uniform” and that he was speaking “as a friend.”

The court granted the City’s motion for a mistrial. It then rescheduled Huertas’ trial for February 14, 2017. One week before the retrial, however, Huertas moved to dismiss the PFMA charge, arguing that the constitutional protection to be free from double jeopardy would be violated if he were retried. The Municipal Court summarily denied Huertas’ motion.

Huertas filed a petition for a writ of mandamus in the district court. The court denied the petition, finding Huertas had a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy at law. Huertas then filed a petition for a writ of supervisory control, asking the Montana Supreme Court to direct the Municipal Court to dismiss the criminal proceeding against him on double jeopardy grounds.

The Montana Supreme Court granted Huertas’ petition, dismissing the Municipal Court charges with prejudice.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article II, § 25 of the Montana Constitution prohibit “being placed twice in jeopardy for the same offense.” It explained that jeopardy attaches when the jury is impaneled, which occurred in this case. Once double jeopardy rights are implicated, a “second criminal trial is barred unless there was a manifest necessity to terminate the trial or the defendant acquiesced in the termination.” State v. Carney, 714 P.2d 532 (Mont. 1986). Additionally, the necessity standard is even more stringent when the mistrial is declared “without the defendant’s request or consent.” State. Partin, 951 P.2d 1002 (Mont. 1997).

“The Municipal Court abused its discretion in declaring a mistrial because there was no manifest necessity,” the Court concluded. It explained that at the time a mistrial was declared L.H. had made only two potentially damaging statements in front of the jury, so the City could have rehabilitated L.H. via redirect examination. The Court noted that L.H. was the City’s own witness, so simply because she testified in an unexpected manner “does not create manifest necessity sufficient to justify a new trial.” The Court stated there is nothing in the record to support the conclusion that “manifest necessity obligated the trial’s termination.” Thus, “Retrying Huertas for the PFMA charge would violate his federal and state fundamental constitutional rights to be free from double jeopardy.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the municipal court’s denial of the motion to dismiss and ordered the municipal court to dismiss the case with prejudice. See: City of Billings ex rel. Huertas v. Billings Municipal Court, 2017 MT 261 (2017). 


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Related legal case

City of Billings ex rel. Huertas v. Billings Municipal Court



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