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Collateral estoppel’s limits, addressed by Fairfax criminal lawyer

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Collateral estoppel law generally prevents prosecutors from relitigating facts already established at certain prior criminal court proceedings. Unfortunately, today the Virginia Supreme Court placed strict boundaries on the extent to which criminal defendants can benefit from collateral estoppel relief, which is grounded in the United States Constitution’s Double Jeopardy ClauseVirginia v. Leonard___ Va. ___  (Oct. 19, 2017).

Bill of Rights - Fairfax criminal lawyer on collateral estoppel

Leonard’s collateral estoppel efforts rested on successfully challenging his first DUI conviction’s procedural sufficiency

As with numerous of my Virginia DUI clients, Gregory Edward Leonard, II, got arrested multiple times for DWI, in 2010 (Leonard I), 2012 (Leonard II), and once again in 2012 (Leonard III). Leonard was convicted by a guilty plea for his 2010 DUI charge. For his second DUI charge (Leonard II), he was found guilty by the General District Court, whose judge ruled that the conviction for Leonard’s 2010 DUI offense could not be used to obtain a mandatory minimum sentence, because “Leonard had not been advised of his constitutional rights, in violation of Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969), before pleading guilty to the 2010 offense.” Virginia v. Leonard___ Va. __ . Leonard appealed his Leonard II conviction from General District Court for a de novo proceeding in Circuit Court, which re-convicted him for a first-time DUI offense.

Leonard’s third DUI case (Leonard III) proceeded to trial as a felony third DUI offense prosecution, before a Circuit Court judge without a jury. At this bench trial, Leonard unsuccessfully argued that the prosecutor’s reliance on his conviction in Leonard I for making Leonard III a felony prosecution (a second DUI offense is a misdemeanor, not a felony) was barred by collateral estoppel law, seeing that the District Court judge in Leonard II declined on Boykin grounds to let the Leonard I conviction allow for a mandatory minimum  DUI sentence. Leonard. 

The District Court record in Leonard II does not evince any Boykin grounds for disregarding the Leonard I  convictionNonetheless, at the Leonard III trial, the prosecutor stipulated that  “the basis for the general district court’s 2012 [Leonard II] ruling was its finding that Leonard was not advised of his constitutional rights before pleading guilty in 2010.” Leonard. 

Virginia’s Court of Appeals agreed with Leonard’s collateral estoppel argument

On appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals in Leonard III, the appellate court sided with Leonard, holding “that the Commonwealth was barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel from using the 2010 DUI conviction [Leonard I] as a predicate offense under the enhanced penalty provisions of Code § 18.2-270(C)(1).” Leonard.  More specifically: “[I]nitially, the Court of Appeals [In Leonard III] observed that ‘[a]ssuming’ the general district court in
the 2012 [Leonard II] proceeding concluded that the 2010 DUI conviction was ‘somehow invalid,’ ‘its actions were an impermissible collateral review of a valid conviction [in Leonard I].” Id. at 288, 784 S.E.2d at 324. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals concluded that Leonard was entitled to rely on the general district court’s 2012 ruling [in Leonard II], though made in error, because the Commonwealth’s stipulation established that the validity of the 2010 DUI conviction was actually litigated in the 2012 general district court proceeding and that ruling was not nullified by the appeal to the circuit court. Id. at 291-94, 784 S.E.2d at 326-27.” Leonard. 

The Virginia Supreme Court reverses regarding collateral estoppel

Leonard reverses the Court of Appeals, saying: “The double jeopardy concerns arising from attempts by the government to relitigate facts underlying a prior acquittal do not apply to the use of a valid and existing conviction for enhanced sentencing.” Leonard. Of course, let us be clear that a prior conviction is an element of the crime of a repeat DUI conviction under Va. Code § 18.2-270 that must be proven at trial or waived.

Furthermore, Leonard should not be seen as permitting the prosecution to relitigate in Circuit Court facts already established in and used by the General District Court to rule favorably for the defense on such a dispositive motion as a motion to suppress evidence, seeing that the governing law generally bars a Virginia prosecutor from appealing a loss of a criminal case in General District Court. Such a scenario was not presented in Leonard, and I would expect the Supreme Court to decline to view Leonard as keeping collateral estoppel principles out of such a dispositive motion scenario.

Fairfax criminal lawyer Jon Katz pursues multiple avenues to victory, no matter how exciting (for instance a successfully devastating cross examination) or cerebral and even dry (for instance collateral estoppel). To discuss your case with Jon, please call his staff at 703-383-1100, to schedule a confidential appointment.