The Law School Authority

Dowling v. United States Case Brief

Summary of Dowling v. United States, 493 U.S. 342 (1990)

Facts: A man wearing a ski mask, armed with a small gun robbed a Bank in St. Croix.  A witness saw the man after he removed his mask in a taxi and identified him at trial.  Prior to the 3rd trial, the Df was acquitted after a trial for burglary.  During that case the victim identified the Df as being the accomplice with Delroy Christian, after she struggled with him and his mask was removed.  The govt introduced her testimony to link the description of the person wearing the mask with the Df, and to link him with Delroy.  The police had saw Delroy and another man in a white car in front of the bank just before the robbery.  The judge instructed the jury as to the limited use of her testimony and the Df’s acquittal.

Issue: Whether the introduction of evidence of a prior, unrelated crime, that resulted in an acquittal, was barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause–collateral estoppel?

Holding: No

Procedure: Two trial, one hung and the other conviction reversed on appeal—then during the third jury trial Df was convicted and sentenced to 70 years.  Ct of App affirmed. S. Ct.  Affirmed

Rule:   In the FRE 404(b) context, similar act evidence is relevant only if the jury can reasonably conclude that the act occurred and that the defendant was the actor.

Rationale: Because a jury might conclude the Df was the masked man who entered the home, even if they did not believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the Df committed the crime charged, the collateral estoppel component of the Double Jeopardy Clause is inapposite.  The Df failed to demonstrate that his acquittal represented a jury determination that he was not one of the men who entered the home.  The burden is on the Df to show that the issue whose relitigation he seeks to foreclose was actually decided in the first proceeding.  The trial judge, in discussing this fact with the Df’s atty stated that the Df “was not acquitted on the issue of identification.”

In light of the limiting instructions, the introduction of the witness’s testimony does not violate “fundamental conceptions of fairness” which define “the community’s sense of fair play and decency.”

Dissent: The doctrine of collateral estoppel “means simply 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.” (quoting Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970)).  In a criminal case, collateral estoppel prohibits the Government from re-litigating any ultimate facts resolved in the defendant’s favor by the prior acquittal. The majority’s response to the increased risk of the jury erroneously convict the df on the present charge, is that he is free to introduce evidence to rebut, yet this underscores the Court’s flaw: the introduction of this type of evidence requires the Df to mount a second defense to an offense he has already been acquitted of.  Constitutional protection against double jeopardy applies even if the acquittal is based on an “egregiously erroneous foundation.”

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