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  • Writer's pictureBennett Nuss

Smith v. United States: 2022-23 Supreme Court criminal decisions

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

In Smith v. United States, the Northern District of Florida indicted Timothy Smith for theft of trade secrets of a website company with its headquarters in Pensacola, Florida. Before trial, Smith moved to dismiss the indictment for improper venue, citing the U.S. Constitution’s venue clause and vicinage clause of the Sixth Amendment, and arguing that the trial was going to occur in the wrong state and that the jury did not consist of jurors from the state and district in which the alleged crime was committed. To support this argument, Smith contended that he lived in Mobile, Alabama, for the entirety of the time the alleged crime was committed and that the servers he allegedly accessed were located in Orlando, in the Middle District of Florida.


The Northern District of Florida dismissed the motion, stating that Smith’s location was a factual matter to be resolved by a jury. A jury found Smith guilty, and he subsequently moved to acquit based on improper venue under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29. The District Court denied the motion, reasoning that the company’s headquarters in Pensacola felt the impact of Smith’s crimes, and thus he opened himself up to criminal liability in the Northern District of Florida. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that it was an improper venue and vacated the judgment but disagreed with Smith that a trial in an improper venue barred re-prosecution. Aiming to prevent his re-prosecution and arguing that the Sixth Amendment’s venue and vicinage clauses precluded a retrial, Smith appealed to the Supreme Court.


Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Alito began with an interrogation of the double jeopardy clause, citing long standing precedent that “it ‘has long been the rule that when a defendant obtains reversal of a prior, unsatisfied conviction, he may be retried in the normal course of events.’” Justice Alito further analyzed that “the appropriate remedy for prejudicial trial error, in almost all circumstances, is simply the award of a retrial, not a judgment barring prosecution.” However, the question is whether this retrial is constitutionally appropriate when there is a known violation of the Sixth Amendment’s venue clause.


Justice Alito summarily dismisses Smith’s two primary arguments, finding first that re-prosecution of a person whose conviction is vacated for improper venue does not confer additional harm to a criminal defendant, and the “mere burden of a second trial has never justified an exemption from the retrial rule.” Second, citing precedent, Justice Alito finds that a mere objection to venue because of a “serious hardship in … prosecution in places distant from the [defendant’s] home” is hardly the kind of difficulty that would prevent a re-prosecution in an appropriate venue.


While hardly ground-breaking or controversial among the justices of the Supreme Court, this decision does provide federal prosecutors a greater deal of leeway when it comes to the proper prosecution of defendants for federal crimes. It also prevents a potentially debilitating defense for those accused of federal crimes that take place across multiple jurisdictions from merely invoking improper venue and escaping proper adjudication of the issue in controversy due to the double jeopardy clause prohibiting further litigation.


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