Federal Supreme Court Decides Criminal Collateral Estoppel Issue

In this post last year, we discussed Yeager v. United States, a white collar federal criminal case on appeal to the Supreme Court. The case involved the prosecution wanting to re-try a defendant who had been acquitted on some counts, but the jury had remained undecided on other counts. Because those other counts relied on facts that the jury must have resolved in the defendant’s favor to acquit, the defense argued (and we agreed) that the doctrine of collateral estoppel precluded the prosecution from retrying the issue. The Supreme Court issued its opinion last week, agreeing with us.

We reviewed the facts and legal issues in Yeager in our previous post. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the acquitted counts meant that the jury found that Mr. Yeager did not have insider information. To prove the hung counts, the prosecution had to show that he had possessed insider information. The Fifth Circuit held that the inconsistency between the jury’s acquittals and hung counts justified a retrial. The Supreme Court declined to review the record to determine whether the Fifth Circuit’s ruling on the fact issue was correctly decided, permitting the Fifth Circuit to revisit the issue. Instead, the Court resolved only the narrower legal question.

Justice Stevens wrote the opinion for the court. He focused on the rule in Ashe v. Swenson, a 1970 case that held that the Double Jeopardy Clause precludes the government from relitigating any issue that was necessarily decided by a jury’s acquittal in a prior trial. The government argued, as the Fifth Circuit had held, that the inconsistency between the jury’s decision in acquitting and indecision in the hung counts justified retrial, but the Supreme Court held that courts should scrutinize juries’ decisions, not failures to decide, in identifying what they necessarily determined at trial.

The Court’s opinion is available here.