The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that double jeopardy principles do not prohibit the prosecutor from charging a defendant with larceny when he was already acquitted of receiving stolen property (related to the same property) at a prior trial. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rodriguez.
The defendant was caught in his friend’s mother’s bedroom standing in front of a jewelry box. He told his friend he was simply petting the friend’s dog. However, the next day it was discovered that a ring from the jewelry box had gone missing. The defendant was later seen in a photograph wearing the ring. He was charged in New Bedford District Court with receiving stolen property. At the trial, the judge learned the Commonwealth was alleging the defendant had personally stolen the ring. The judge concluded (incorrectly) that if the defendant was the thief, he could be convicted of larceny by not of receiving stolen property. As a result, the judge found the defendant not guilty of receiving stolen property. The prosecutor then caused a complaint to issue against the defendant for larceny. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the larceny charge, arguing that because he had already been acquitted of receiving stolen property, a prosecution for larceny would violate double jeopardy principles. A district court judge agreed and dismissed the case and the Commonwealth appealed. The Supreme Judicial Court reversed.
The federal and state constitutions both prohibit placing a criminal defendant in jeopardy multiple times for the same offense. Double jeopardy bars a second prosecution for the same crime after the defendant has already been acquitted or convicted (as well as barring the imposition of multiple penalties for the same crime). The Supreme Judicial Court analyzes the case under the “same elements” test, which states that two crimes can be charged for the same offense as long as each crime has an element that the other does not. In this case, the crime of larceny requires the defendant be the actual thief (which is not an element of receiving stolen property). The crime of receiving stolen property requires the property already be stolen at the time of receipt (which is not an element of larceny). Accordingly, because they have at least one separate element, the defendant could properly be charged with both crimes.
The defendant argued the Court should apply the “same conduct” test, which states essentially that the government must charge all crimes related to a single criminal act during a single prosecution. This is the more fair test, as it will prevent a defendant from being repeatedly prosecuted for a single criminal scheme. The Court declined to impose this test out of deference to prior cases which stated double jeopardy claims must be analyzed under the same elements test. The Court pointed out the defendant could still prevail on his motion to dismiss the larceny conviction if: (1) he could prove prosecutorial vindictiveness (the prosecutor was simply harassing him); (2) he could prove all the issues in the new case had already been litigated in a prior proceeding (referred to as issue preclusion); or (3) he could prove the Commonwealth was attempting to manipulate the judicial process with the prosecution of the new case (referred to as judicial estoppel). The SJC concluded the defendant had failed to prove prosecutorial vindictiveness, issue preclusion, or judicial estoppel, and therefore it was appropriate for him to be prosecuted for larceny even after his acquittal for receiving stolen property.