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GA Supreme Court Permits Revisit of Pretrial Self-Defense Order

July 29, 2013

In State v. Hipp, the Georgia Supreme Court held that in limited situations a trial court has the authority to revisit its pretrial ruling denying immunity from prosecution under Georgia’s self-defense statute—even after a jury has returned a guilty verdict against the defendant.

Hipp was arrested for pulling out a knife during a fight and was subsequently indicted for aggravated assault and simple battery. He filed a pretrial motion to dismiss based on OCGA § 16-3-24.2, which bars prosecution of persons who present sufficient evidence at a pretrial hearing that they were acting in self-defense. At the hearing, Hipp and his son testified that he was acting in self-defense and the testimony was uncontroverted by the State. The trial court nonetheless denied the motion on the grounds that the testimony suggested mutual combat and not self-defense.

At trial, Hipp asserted a justification defense based on self-defense, but the jury rejected the defense and convicted him of aggravated assault. Hipp then filed a motion for new trial, alleging error in the trial court’s denial of immunity. Both the motion for new trial and pretrial order denying immunity were filed during the same term of court.

The trial court granted the motion for a new trial and the Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that after the jury rejected Hipp’s justification defense, the trial court no longer had the power to reexamine its pretrial ruling denying immunity.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed. In examining the trial court’s authority to revisit its own pretrial ruling, the Court reasoned that in a motion for new trial, a trial court has the power to review its own rulings in the same case and grant a new trial if such rulings are erroneous. Further, the Court pointed to its prior decisions holding that in criminal cases, a trial court has “plenary power over its orders and judgments during the term at which they are entered and may amend, correct, or revoke them, for the purpose of promoting justice.” Based on this principle, the Court has previously held that in a criminal case, a trial court has the authority to review and change their interlocutory rulings prior to entering a final judgment.

Based on this reasoning, the Court held that the trial court in Hipp had the authority to reverse its pretrial ruling denying Hipp’s motion for immunity from prosecution. Where the jury has entered a verdict but a final judgment has not yet been entered, as here, a trial court has authority to reexamine its pretrial ruling on a motion for immunity under OCGA § 16-3-24.2.

The Court, however, limited this holding and stated that this does not apply when the defendant files a challenge to the immunity ruling in a subsequent term of court. Thus, if the trial court denies the immunity motion, the defendant is then convicted, and the motion for new trial is then filed in a subsequent term of court, the trial court would apparently not have authority to reexamine its ruling on the motion.

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