Summary Judgments and Pretrial Judgments: Civil and Criminal Trials

Once a criminal trial has begun but before it goes to the jury, it's possible for a defendant to obtain a not-guilty verdict from the judge.

By , Attorney · New Mexico School of Law
Updated 4/19/2021

Civil lawsuits and criminal cases can conclude before a judge or jury hears the case or reaches a verdict. The parties can settle or enter a plea agreement at any point before or even during a trial. In addition, rules of procedure provide mechanisms for the court to enter a judgment in earlier stages of a case. Some of these forms of judgment are available in both civil and criminal cases, but summary judgment is available only in civil cases.

What Is Summary Judgment?

A court can grant summary judgment in a civil case if the judge finds that: 1) no disputed issues exist as to material facts in the case; and 2) a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

At any time after a lawsuit is filed, either party can submit sworn witness statements and documentary evidence to the court and request summary judgment. This information often is gathered through a process known as "discovery," in which the two sides exchange documents and take witness statements under oath. The recorded or transcribed questioning sessions are known as "depositions."

The party requesting summary judgment typically argues that the statements and documents developed during discovery show that the evidence points to only one plausible conclusion on the facts (supporting the moving party); and that those facts require judgment in that party's favor. For instance, in a car accident case, the plaintiff (the party who filed the lawsuit) might argue that: 1) all of the evidence revealed during discovery shows that the traffic light was red when the defendant drove his car through the intersection and hit the plaintiff's car; and 2) the plaintiff is entitled to judgment against the defendant because, as a matter of law, a driver who runs a red light is driving negligently and responsible for any harm his negligence causes.

Pretrial and Pre-Verdict Judgments in Criminal Cases

While summary judgment is not available in a criminal case, there are many other points before a verdict is reached when the judge can grant a judgment in favor of the defense.

Motions to Dismiss

In a criminal case, either party can ask the court to dismiss the charges against the defendant at any point after the charges are filed. The court can dismiss the criminal charges on several grounds, including lack of probable cause for an arrest, lack of evidence, loss of evidence, or an illegal stop or search. For a more in-depth discussion regarding dismissal of criminal charges, see Getting a Criminal Charge Dismissed.

Directed Verdict

Once a trial begins in a criminal case, the court can grant a directed verdict in favor of the defendant at any point before the jury begins deliberating. Here's how the situation would typically unfold.

The criminal trial begins with the prosecution presenting evidence to the judge or jury (whoever is hearing the case) that is meant to prove the defendant is guilty of the crimes charged. When the prosecution finishes presenting its case (or "rests"), the defendant is permitted to present evidence, also known as presenting the defendant's case.

After the prosecution rests and before the defendant begins presenting evidence, the defendant can request a directed verdict. The judge can grant a verdict in favor of the defendant if, after viewing all the evidence presented so far in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the judge finds that: 1) the evidence simply does not establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime, or 2) no reasonable jury could find the defendant guilty of the crime or crimes charged based on the evidence the prosecution has presented. The judge can direct a verdict as to one, some, or all the charges that the defendant faces.

After the defense presents its evidence, the defendant can request a directed verdict again, arguing that the evidence presented does not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or that a reasonable jury considering all the evidence presented during the trial could not find the defendant guilty.

In civil cases, either party (plaintiff or defendant) can request a directed verdict. However, in a criminal case, the judge can direct a verdict only in favor of the defendant. The judge cannot direct a verdict finding the defendant guilty, because the defendant is entitled under the constitution to a full and complete trial.

Setting Aside a Jury's Verdict

If the jury in a criminal case finds the defendant guilty, the defense can make a motion asking the court to set aside the judgment. The grounds for this motion are nearly identical to the grounds for a directed verdict—that no reasonable jury could have reached the guilty verdict based on the evidence presented and that the defendant should be acquitted as a matter of law.

In civil cases, either side can make a similar request—known as a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or JNOV (judgment non obstante verdict). In a criminal case, however, the prosecution doesn't have this option. The prosecutor cannot ask the judge to set aside a jury verdict of acquittal and find the defendant guilty, as this would violate the defendant's constitutional rights.

The Importance of Legal Representation

If you're facing criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney immediately. A knowledgeable attorney can advise you of your rights, guide you through the court process, and will be familiar with your options regarding pretrial motions to dismiss and other alternative judgments.

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