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The German Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgerichts) recently ruled that a second trial (due to new evidence) after a previous acquittal violates the German constitution:

BVerfG urteilt zur umstrittenen Wiederaufnahme-Vorschrift - "Frei­spruch unter Vor­be­halt" ist ver­fas­sungs­widrig (Federal Constitutional Court judgment on disputed rule for retrials - "Acquittal with caveat" violates constitution).

For that reason, a law allowing such second trials (§ 362 (5) StPO) was struck down.

One reason given is that this violates Art. 103 (3) of the German Basic Law. The law says:

(3) Niemand darf wegen derselben Tat auf Grund der allgemeinen Strafgesetze mehrmals bestraft werden.

English:

(3) No person may be punished for the same act more than once under the general criminal laws.

While I understand that a second trial after an acquittal may seem unfair, I do not understand why it would violate Art. 103 (3). The article explicitly talks about "bestrafen" ("punishment") - but if the accused was acquitted, there was no punishment.

Is the trial in itself considered a "punishment"? Why does the rule apply in this case?

Note: The judgement also gives a second reason for striking down the law, namely that the law applies retroactively, which is also unsconstitutional. I am not asking about that part.

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  • Possibly relevant: prinz.law/urteile/bgh/GSSt___2-53
    – sleske
    Oct 31, 2023 at 14:06
  • 1
    One concern that was expressed was that any acquittal would become conditional. The right of the individual to assume that an acquittal is final should prevail over the right of the state to procecute. Nov 1, 2023 at 15:24
  • If no punishment can be exacted, the case becomes moot, and courts traditionally (at least in most common law jurisdictions) won't try moot cases (for instance, a dead perpetrator).
    – Rich
    Nov 1, 2023 at 19:49

4 Answers 4

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tl;dr:

There is a long legal tradition that the prohibition on being punished a second time really means that a suspect cannot (generally) be put on trial for a second time, no matter whether the first trial ended with punishment or an acquittal. Courts have repeatedly decided that Art. 103 section 3 of the Basic Law (and similar older laws) must be interpreted that way.


For example, the Federal Court (BGH) ruled in 1953:

  1. §10 des Landesgesetzes von Rheinland-Pfalz zur Beseitigung nationalsozialistischen Unrechts in der Strafrechtspflege vom 23. März 1948 ist mit Art. 103 Abs. 3 des Grundgesetzes insoweit nicht vereinbar, als er die Wiederaufnahme des Verfahrens zu Ungunsten

    a) eines zu Strafe Verurteilten, b) Freigesprochenen

vorsieht.

2.) Art. 103 Abs. 3 GrundG steht der nochmaligen Aburteilung auch eines Freigesprochenen entgegen.

English (by me):

  1. §10 of the Landesgesetzes von Rheinland-Pfalz zur Beseitigung nationalsozialistischen Unrechts in der Strafrechtspflege from March 23, 1948 is in conflict with Art. 103 section 3 of the Basic Law, as it allows a retrial to the detriment of someone who was

a) sentenced to a punishment

b) or acquitted

  1. Art. 103 section 3 of the Basic Law does not allow a retrial of someone who was acquitted previously.

The detailed text of the judgement goes into more detail on why Art. 103 section 3 also applies to acquittal, even though the text of the law does not mention acquittals.

The gist is:

Dass Art. 103 Abs. 3 GrundG nur von mehrmaliger "Bestrafung" und nicht von mehrmaliger "Aburteilung" spricht, ist nicht von entscheidender Bedeutung. Dass damit etwa die Rechtskraft zugunsten Freigesprochener von der verfassungskräftigen Sicherung ausgenommen werden sollte, kann unmöglich angenommen werden. Denn der rechtskräftig Freigesprochene braucht und verdient in genau demselben Masse Schutz gegen eine nochmalige Wiederaufrollung des Verfahrens gegen ihn wie der rechtskräftig Verurteilte.

English:

The fact that Art. 103 section 3 only mentions "punishment" and not "judgement" is not critically important. It cannot possibly be assumed that the legal effect ("Rechtskraft") to the benefit of the acquitted should be exempt from protection by the constitution. The acquitted needs and deserves protection from a retrial in exactly the same way like a person who was sentenced to punishment.

So the idea seems to be that once an accusation has reached the point of going to trial, the matter deserves and requires a definite resolution, namely a final verdict. Once that verdict has been reached, it should be and remain final, no matter whether it was a punishment or an acquittal.

This is a continuation of the old Roman principle of Non bis in idem.

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  • 1
    It is also equivalent to the common law pleas of autrefois acquit or autrefois convict elsewhere, though only the latter idea seems to be covered explicitly by Art. 103(3). There is also the curiosity that Germany has not ratified Additional Protocol 7 of ECHR which deals with double jeopardy, despite having signed it in 1985.
    – Henry
    Nov 1, 2023 at 11:23
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    FWIW, double jeopardy is not as absolute in England where it originated, as it is in the U.S. (and now, it seems, Germany). English law recognizes exceptions when a retrial following an acquittal are allowed which are comparable to the one that the change to German law in 2021 contemplated.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 1, 2023 at 17:34
  • Also German law has § 362 (1) - (4) StPO which give reasons for retrial of an acquitted person, and those have been discussed as constitutional in contrast to the new (5) in the ruling. The argument in the majority ruling is that they serve to protect and hold up the authority of the rule of law and deal with flaws in the court procedure and prevent a confession to cause the court decision to be laughed at. In contrast, the void (5) was not about flawed court procedure but about what is essentially a mistake by the prosecution. Nov 15, 2023 at 0:30
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The English translation (via Google) of the linked article states:

The Second Senate of the Federal Constitutional Court (BVerfG) has upheld the constitutional complaint of a man who, after being legally acquitted in a murder trial, was tried again years later for the same charge (judgment of October 31, 2023, case number 2 BvR 900/22).

In 1983, Ismet H., now over 60 years old, was legally acquitted of the charge of raping and killing 17-year-old Frederike von Möhlmann. However, the proceedings against the man were reopened in 2021 due to new evidence - on the basis of a regulation that had recently been introduced into the Code of Criminal Procedure (StPO) by the then GroKo government. Ismet H. attacked exactly this § 362 No. 5 StPO with a constitutional complaint. The BVerfG agreed with him on Tuesday.

BVerfG: “Article 103, paragraph 3 of the Basic Law is a matter of balance and must not be relativized”

The Karlsruhe judges declared Section 362 No. 5 StPO to be void. The provision is incompatible with the prohibition of multiple prosecutions in Article 103 Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law (GG) and the prohibition of retroactivity (Article 103 Paragraph 3 in conjunction with Article 20 Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law). "Art. 103 Para. 3 GG grants the principle of legal certainty absolute priority over the principle of material justice," said the court. This priority decision is also absolute and is not open to relativizing the ban by weighing it against other legal interests of constitutional importance. When viewed systematically, Article 103 Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law appears to be “balanced,” according to the court.

The legal certainty created by a legally binding judgment also extends to the fact that it is not called into question by the emergence of new facts or evidence. The individual should be able to trust that after a verdict they cannot be prosecuted again for the facts in question. If the legislature had the right to strike a different balance between legal certainty and the state's right to punish, Article 103 Paragraph 3 of the Basic Law itself could not justify the defendant's trust in the validity of the criminal judgment issued in his case and thus legal certainty for the individual," said the court with.

In the opinion of the BVerfG, the application of Section 362 No. 5 StPO to proceedings that had already been concluded by a final acquittal before the provision came into force also violates the prohibition of retroactivity (Art. 103 Para. 3 in conjunction with Art. 20 Para. 3 GG) . There is a “real” retroactive effect, which is not admissible in exceptional cases. “Those who have been acquitted can trust that the legal force of the acquittal can only be broken based on the previous legal situation,” said the court. The principle “ne bis in idem” (not twice in the same matter) recognizes the need to protect trust in an acquittal criminal verdict. Art. 103 Para. 3 GG gives this protection of trust constitutional status.

Before the law struck down in this case was passed, German criminal law created a statutory right for criminal defendants who were acquitted to not be retried for the same offense.

The German Constitutional Court held as a matter of German Constitutional law by combining Art. 103(3) and Article 20(3) of the German Basic Law (basically, Germany's Constitution), that the comfort provided by this statutory right to pre-2021 criminal defendants who were acquitted could not be changed by a post-2021 law. It isn't clear to me if this German Constitutional Court case has prospective application to acquittals taking place after 2021.

Article 20(3) states (in a human made translation from the German Basic Law link): "(3) The legislature shall be bound by the constitutional order, the executive and the judiciary by law and justice."

Article 20(3) had previously been held to prohibit retroactive legislation. In this case, a law/regulation enacted in 2021 reopened an acquittal verdict that had previously been final and not subject to being reopened.

It isn't clear to me, given the logic of the ruling, that this ruling necessarily rules out the possibility of a trial following an acquittal based upon new evidence for convictions entered after the new law was adopted in 2021 - a fact pattern that was not before the court. It certainly does say, however, that if you have a final acquittal not subject to any further judicial review entered prior to the new 2021 law, the government can't take away the certainty that you would not face a new trial based upon this new law retroactively.

This ruling seems similar in structure to U.S. court rulings (in some U.S. jurisdictions, but not others) holding that once claim that could be asserted in a civil lawsuit is barred by the statute of limitations, it may not be revived with legislation passed after the statute of limitations has run.

It is possible that this ruling is stronger than I have supposed and also includes as a hybrid of Article 103(3) and 20(3), a true double jeopardy protection arising from the German Basic Law. But, without access to more in depth text from the ruling and analysis from lawyers familiar with German criminal law and procedure, it is hard to tell. To a common law mind, a holding like that would be dicta and not a binding precedent, but German law treats case law differently than common law systems do, so the challenge to the holding as applied to post-2021 cases as dicta would probably not be appropriate in German law.

It could simply be that the prior statutory prohibition on double jeopardy in German criminal cases prevented the issue from facing German Constitutional Court review since the prior law didn't violate the German Basic Law prior to 2021.

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  • IANAL, but the ruling literally says § 362 Nr. 5 StPO is entirely void. There is also no previous version of this paragraph, it was newly introduced in order to add the possibility of retrial against an already acquitted person on the basis of new facts or evidence. The ruling contrasts the new Nr. 5 with the already previously existing Nr. 1-4 (which apparently have a history dating back in to 19th century) which are considered constitutional reasons for retrial against an acquitted person. But as I read the majority ruling, it doesn't leave room for legislation to come up with a ... Nov 15, 2023 at 0:18
  • ... constitutional "healed" version of Nr. 5. (Which may not prevent legislation from trying again, but then right now 2 of the parties that were already in 2021 against this new paragraph are in the government coalition) Nov 15, 2023 at 0:25
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German law is usually not based on precedent, however the supreme court aims for some degree of continuity in their interpretation of the constitution/Grundgesetz. So as per their written opinion on the matter:

Nach dem Justizgrundrecht des Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG darf niemand wegen derselben Tat aufgrund der allgemeinen Strafgesetze mehrmals bestraft werden. Ungeachtet des Wortlauts der Norm ist in der bisherigen Rechtsprechung des Bundesverfassungsgerichts anerkannt, dass die Garantie nicht nur die mehrfache Bestrafung, sondern auch die mehrfache Verfolgung wegen einer Tat nach Freispruch untersagt (vgl. BVerfGE 12, 62 <66>; vgl. ausführlich dazu Rn. 59 ff.). Das Vorliegen einer rechtskräftigen strafgerichtlichen Entscheidung stellt ein unmittelbar aus dem Grundgesetz folgendes strafprozessuales Verfahrenshindernis dar (vgl. BVerfGE 56, 22 <32>; 162, 358 <371 f. Rn. 46>; vgl. Rn. 71). Das Verbot der Mehrfachverfolgung richtet sich unmittelbar an die Strafverfolgungsbehörden und die Gerichte, aber auch an den Gesetzgeber.

https://www.bundesverfassungsgericht.de/SharedDocs/Entscheidungen/DE/2023/10/rs20231031_2bvr090022.html?nn=5399840

Broadly meaning, regardless of the words of the law, ongoing jurisprudence of the supreme court recognizes that the law does not only prohibit multiple punishments, but also being pursued multiple times for the same crime.

Also in this particular case, a change in law was applied retroactively, which also in unconstitutional.

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Here are (in German language)

From the ruling:

(1) Träger des grundrechtsgleichen Rechts aus Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG sind nicht nur Verurteilte, sondern auch Freigesprochene (vgl. BVerfGE 12, 62 <66>; 162, 358 <371 Rn. 46>; BVerfGK 9, 22 <26>).

[...]

(c) Das den Freispruch einschließende Verständnis des Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG trägt seinem grundrechtsgleichen Charakter Rechnung. Jedes Strafverfahren stellt unabhängig von seinem Ausgang eine erhebliche Belastung für den Einzelnen dar. Zweck des grundrechtsgleichen Schutzes ist die Zusicherung, dass jeder wegen derselben Tat diesen Belastungen nur einmal ausgesetzt sein soll (vgl. BVerfGE 56, 22 <31>; BVerfGK 4, 49 <53>). Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG bezweckt die Verhinderung von Grundrechtseingriffen durch das Strafverfahren, verbürgt also die „Einmaligkeit der Strafverfolgung“ (vgl. BGHSt 38, 54 <57>; Appel, Verfassung und Strafe, 1998, S. 133; Schmidt-Aßmann, in: Dürig/Herzog/Scholz, GG, Art. 103 Abs. 3 Rn. 301 <Dez. 1992>), nicht nur die „Einmaligkeit der Sühne“. Der Einzelne soll darauf vertrauen können, wegen eines konkreten individualisierten Sachverhalts nicht erneut vom Staat belangt und mit den Belastungen eines Strafverfahrens überzogen zu werden (vgl. BVerfGE 56, 22 <31>).

[...]

(2) Auch aus Entstehungsgeschichte und Zweckrichtung ergibt sich, dass Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG über seinen Wortlaut hinaus nicht allein vor einer Verurteilung, sondern auch bereits vor allen Maßnahmen schützt, deren Zweck die mögliche Verurteilung ist (vgl. BVerfGE 12, 62 <66>; 23, 191 <202>; 65, 377 <381>; 162, 358 <371 Rn. 46>; BVerfGK 4, 49 <52>; 13, 7 <11>). Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG enthält ein Mehrfachverfolgungsverbot, kein bloßes Mehrfachbestrafungsverbot.

Aufgabe des Strafprozesses ist es, den Strafanspruch des Staates um des Schutzes der Rechtsgüter Einzelner und der Allgemeinheit willen in einem justizförmigen Verfahren durchzusetzen und hierdurch einen gerechten Schuldausgleich zu bewirken (vgl. BVerfGE 133, 168 <198 f. Rn. 55 f.>). Darf der Täter aber nicht erneut bestraft werden, kann ein gleichwohl geführtes Strafverfahren diese Funktion nicht erfüllen. Ohne die Möglichkeit einer Bestrafung entfällt die Legitimationsgrundlage dafür, den Einzelnen mit den Belastungen eines Strafverfahrens zu überziehen. Ein um seiner selbst willen geführtes Strafverfahren, an dessen Ende kein Strafausspruch erfolgen darf, würde den Einzelnen zum bloßen Objekt der Strafverfolgung herabsetzen (vgl. BVerfGE 133, 168 <197 ff. Rn. 53 ff.>). Strafprozessrechtlich stellt Art. 103 Abs. 3 GG deshalb ein Verfahrenshindernis dar, das als solches bereits der erneuten Einleitung eines Strafverfahrens entgegensteht (vgl. BVerfGE 56, 22 <32>; 162, 358 <371 f. Rn. 46>; BVerfGK 13, 7 <11>).

automatic translation by deepl with some manual help:

(1) Not only convicted persons but also acquitted persons are entitled to the fundamental right under Article 103.3 of the Basic Law (cf. BVerfGE 12, 62 <66>; 162, 358 <371 para. 46>; BVerfGK 9, 22 <26>).

[...]

(c) The understanding of Art. 103(3) GG, which includes the acquittal, takes account of its character as a fundamental right. Every criminal proceeding represents a considerable burden for the individual, regardless of its outcome. The purpose of protection equal to fundamental rights is to ensure that everyone should only be exposed to these burdens once for the same offense (see BVerfGE 56, 22 <31>; BVerfGK 4, 49 <53>). The purpose of Art. 103 (3) GG is to prevent interference with fundamental rights through criminal proceedings, thus guaranteeing the "uniqueness of criminal prosecution" (cf. BGHSt 38, 54 <57>; Appel, Verfassung und Strafe, 1998, p. 133; Schmidt-Aßmann, in: Dürig/Herzog/Scholz, GG, Art. 103 (3) para. 301 <Dec. 1992>), not only the "uniqueness of atonement". The individual should be able to trust that he or she will not be prosecuted again by the state for a specific individualized set of facts and be subjected to the burdens of criminal proceedings (cf. BVerfGE 56, 22 <31>).

[...]

 (2) It also follows from the legislative history and purpose of Article 103. (3) GG that, beyond its wording, it does not only protect against a conviction, but also against all measures whose purpose is the possible conviction (cf. BVerfGE 12, 62 <66>; 23, 191 <202>; 65, 377 <381>; 162, 358 <371 para. 46>; BVerfGK 4, 49 <52>; 13, 7 <11>). Art. 103 (3) GG contains a prohibition of multiple prosecution, not a mere prohibition of multiple punishment.

 The task of criminal proceedings is to enforce the state's claim to punishment in a judicial procedure for the sake of protecting the legal interests of individuals and the general public, thereby achieving a just settlement of guilt (cf. BVerfGE 133, 168 <198 f. para. 55 f.>). However, if the offender may not be punished again, criminal proceedings that are nevertheless conducted cannot fulfill this function. Without the possibility of punishment, there is no legitimacy for imposing the burdens of criminal proceedings on the individual. Criminal proceedings conducted for their own sake, at the end of which no conviction may be handed down, would reduce the individual to a mere object of criminal prosecution (see BVerfGE 133, 168 <197 et seq. para. 53 et seq.>). In terms of criminal procedure law, Art. 103 (3) GG therefore constitutes a procedural obstacle, which as such already prevents the re-initiation of criminal proceedings (see BVerfGE 56, 22 <32>; 162, 358 <371 et seq. para. 46>; BVerfGK 13, 7 <11>).

(The ruling also has a part on the history of the constitutional article as well as on current criminal procedure practice that also apply Art 103 (3) as prohibiting already double prosecution.)

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