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Collateral Estopel In A Criminal Case; If You Might Be A Citizen Once, You Might Be A Citizen Forever

One of the most jarring things about federal criminal practice, especially for lawyers who are well trained in civil litigation – is how many procedural rights and doctrines don’t apply.

You want to move for summary judgment? No such motion exists (as a general matter, but see this post).

You want to take a deposition? You’re likely out of luck. (Yes, that’s right, you get more information about the other side’s case in a civil case – which is only about money – than you do in a criminal case where someone might go to prison).

Yet, every now and again, a decision comes down that reminds you that in some cases – perhaps rare cases – the old familiar doctrines from law school can provide a benefit in a federal criminal case.

778488_stone_judge.jpgUnited States v. Valdiviez-Garza is one such case.

There, the Eleventh Circuit ordered the district court to dismiss an indictment because of the doctrine of collateral estoppel.

That’s right – collateral estoppel. In a criminal case.

Collateral estoppel, for the one non-lawyer reader of this blog (hi Mom!), is the rule that once an issue is fully and finally resolved between any two parties, it is settled, and can’t be argued again.

How does this arise in a criminal case? Here’s what happened.

Mr. Valdiviez-Garcia was charged with illegal reentry. The elements of illegal reentry are that the person charged:

(1) was an alien at the time of the offense; (2) who had previously been removed or deported; (3) and had reentered the United States after removal; (4) without having received the express consent of the Attorney General.

The thing is, Mr. Valdiviez-Garza had already been tried for illegal reentry years before. In that case, he was acquitted.

Mr. Valdiviez-Garza’s dad, it seems, was a United States citizen. And, under certain circumstances, if one of a person’s parents is a citizen, the person is a citizen.

In the first trial, the only issue was whether Mr. Valdiviez-Garza was a citizen. His lawyer focused on only one issue in the trial – the lawyer cross-examined only one witness, and that cross dealt only with Mr. Valdiviez-Garza’s citizenship.

The jury acquitted Mr. Valdiviez-Garza in that case. Because there was only one issue in the first trial, the Eleventh Circuit determined that Mr. Valdiviez-Garza was acquitted on the basis of reasonable doubt about his citizenship.

Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit held, it is finally settled that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether Mr. Valdiviez-Garza is a United States citizen. Under collateral estoppel, the United States government cannot take a position contrary to there being reasonable doubt about whether he is a citizen.

So, when, years later, Mr. Valdiviez-Garza was indicted, again, for illegal reentry, the Eleventh Circuit ordered the district court to dismiss the case, because there is reasonable doubt as to an element of the offense.

Interestingly, the Eleventh Circuit ordered the district court to dismiss the appeal on an interlocutory appeal – without a trial. As the court of appeals explained,

Because the collateral estoppel doctrine implicates the constitutional protection against double jeopardy, we have jurisdiction to review the interlocutory decision under the collateral order doctrine.

Let’s hope Mr. Valdiviez-Garcia was not held in custody too long on this charge before the Eleventh Circuit ordered the indictment dismissed.