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Understanding the Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty" in Criminal Law

Updated: Jan 30

Discover the legal distinctions between "acquitted" and "not guilty" in criminal law. Get clarity on these terms with HULULAW.
Understanding the Difference Between "Acquitted" and "Not Guilty" in Criminal Law

In the realm of criminal law, the terms "acquitted" and "not guilty" are often used interchangeably. However, a closer examination reveals subtle but essential distinctions that can significantly impact legal proceedings. At Cali Law Firm, APC, we believe it's crucial for our clients to grasp these nuances for a more comprehensive understanding of their legal situations.

The Fundamental Distinction

Not Guilty: To begin with, the term "not guilty" signifies that a defendant is not legally answerable for the criminal charge filed against them. In essence, it means that the prosecution has failed to establish the defendant's guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." When a verdict of "not guilty" is delivered, it implies that the defendant cannot be held criminally responsible for the alleged offense.

Acquittal: On the other hand, an acquittal occurs when a judge or jury, after a trial, finds the defendant not guilty of the crime charged. This is a significant legal declaration that carries specific implications. Importantly, if a defendant is acquitted in state court, they are protected from being retried for the same offense in that state. It serves as a safeguard against double jeopardy.

The Complexities of Partial Acquittal

One intriguing aspect of these terms lies in the potential for partial acquittals. Let's consider an example to illustrate this concept. Imagine a person charged with both domestic violence and rape. If there is insufficient evidence to support the rape charge, but enough evidence to prove the domestic violence charge, the defendant is deemed "not guilty" of the rape charge while potentially being found guilty of the domestic violence charge. This scenario highlights the intricate nature of criminal law and the various facets these verdicts can have.

The Notion of Innocence

It's crucial to emphasize that within the United States legal system, an acquittal does not equate to an absolute declaration of innocence. Rather, it signifies that the prosecution could not meet the demanding burden of proof required in criminal cases. Therefore, an acquitted defendant is not necessarily considered "innocent" but rather free from legal responsibility for the specific crime charged.

Criminal vs. Civil Cases

Another layer of complexity arises when we consider the interplay between criminal and civil cases. It is entirely possible for an individual to be acquitted of a particular crime, such as DUI, in a criminal case while still being held civilly liable for the same offense in a civil case. This disparity arises from the differing standards of proof in these two legal arenas. Civil cases require a lower standard of proof compared to criminal cases, making it feasible for a defendant to face contrasting outcomes in these parallel proceedings.

A prime illustration of this divergence is the O.J. Simpson case, where he was acquitted in the criminal trial but found liable in the subsequent civil trial. This serves as a poignant reminder of the complex nature of legal outcomes.

Acquittal vs. Dismissal

It's essential to clarify that an "acquittal" and a "dismissal" are distinct legal events. An acquittal transpires when, after a full trial, a judge or jury declares a defendant not guilty of a crime. In contrast, a dismissal occurs at an earlier stage of the criminal court process, typically before a trial. Dismissals occur for various reasons, such as when the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence to support the charges or when the judge deems the case lacking in credibility or resources to proceed.

Petition for a Dismissal

Furthermore, a criminal defense attorney can petition the court to dismiss a case under specific circumstances. This may occur if:

- The defendant was arrested without probable cause.

- The district attorney made errors in the criminal complaint or charging documents.

- Authorities engaged in an unlawful search and seizure.

- There was insufficient evidence to support the charges.

In both cases of dismissal and dropping charges, the criminal case terminates, and the defendant is spared from standing trial for any offenses. This reflects the legal system's commitment to ensuring fairness and justice.

Reduction of Charges

Additionally, it's worth noting that reducing charges is a separate legal matter entirely. This happens when either the judge or prosecutor decides to charge the defendant with a lesser offense. For instance, the District Attorney might opt to reduce a DUI charge to the lesser charge of reckless driving, provided the defendant agrees to plead guilty. This legal maneuver is often referred to as a "dry reckless plea bargain."

The Implications of Double Jeopardy

A critical aspect tied to acquittals is the concept of double jeopardy, enshrined in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Double jeopardy safeguards individuals from:

- Facing prosecution after acquittal for the same offense.

- Experiencing double convictions for the same offense.

- Enduring multiple punishments for the same offense.

Once certain junctures in the criminal court process are reached, the government loses its power to reprosecute a defendant for the same offense. When this occurs, the law recognizes that the defendant was already "once in jeopardy," or, simply put, jeopardy has attached.

However, it's vital to note that double jeopardy's protections may not extend uniformly across all jurisdictions. While an accused acquitted in state court is generally protected from retrial for the same crime in federal court and vice versa, exceptions exist. This is because jeopardy only attaches to prosecutions of the same criminal acts by the same sovereign.


In conclusion, the seemingly interchangeable terms "acquitted" and "not guilty" carry intricate distinctions within the legal realm. Understanding these nuances is pivotal when navigating the complexities of the criminal justice system. At Cali Law Firm, APC, we are committed to providing our clients with comprehensive legal insights to empower them in their legal journeys. If you require further clarification or assistance with any legal matters, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.


This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. It is essential to consult with a qualified attorney for specific legal guidance.

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