Collateral Estoppel: the "Little Brother" to the Double Jeopardy Clause

February 8, 2012 by Paul Kish

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes the well-known protection against double jeopardy. Some lawyers and lay people might not realize that there is sort of a "little brother" to the protection against double jeopardy, which is called the rule of "collateral estoppel." The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, down the street from us here in Atlanta, recently used the "little brother" to reverse a criminal conviction from the Middle District of Florida. The case is United States v. Valdiviez-Garza.

Double jeopardy protects against multiple prosecutions for the same offense. Collateral estoppel, on the other hand, teaches that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit. In other words, if there was an earlier criminal case that the Defendant won, and if the jury in that previous case "necessarily determined" a certain fact in the Defendant's favor, then there cannot be a later case against that same Defendant if the subsequent case requirs proof of that same fact. Therefore, the big issue in this context almost always is whether the earlier trial involved a fact or issue that was "necessarily determined" in the defendant's favor.

In Valdiviez-Garza, he had previously been charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation. He won that case by arguing that he was not an illegal alien because he obtained citizenship through his father, who was also a citizen. Several years later, he was prosecuted again for illegally entering the country, and this later case also required the prosecutor to prove he was not a citizen. However, he got convicted the second go-round. He appealed to the Eleventh Circuit, and they agreed that he should have never faced the second prosecution because of the collateral estoppel rule. The only issue in his first trial was whether he was an alien, and he won. There never should have been a second prosecution, because the issue of his alienage had already been determined in the earlier trial.

This is a rather rare case. It is refreshing to see the courts remember that the government should only get one whack at a Defendant, otherwise we could all be in jeopardy time and time again.