Michigan Supreme Court Holds Double Jeopardy, Collateral Estoppel Prevent 2nd Prosecution

On June 18th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that the Double Jeopardy Clause and the doctrine of collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, prevent a second prosecution when defendant was convicted in his first trial of felony murder but was acquitted of the only predicate felony that supported the felony-murder charge and the felony-murder conviction was subsequently vacated.

In People v Wilson, Docket No. 146480, the Michgan Supreme Court addressed an appeal where the issue centered around whether the prosecution could, for a second time, prosecute defendant for the same crimes that a jury had previously determined defendant did not commit.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Dwayne E. Wilson was charged in the Macomb Circuit Court, Matthew Switalski, J., with first-degree premeditated murder, MCL 750.316(1)(a); first-degree felony murder, MCL 750.316(1)(b); first-degree home invasion, MCL 750.110a(2); second-degree murder, MCL 750.317; assault with intent to commit great bodily harm less than murder, MCL 750.84; felony-firearm, MCL 750.227b; and two counts of unlawful imprisonment, MCL 750.349b. The first-degree home invasion was the only predicate offense that supported the felony-murder charge. The jury found defendant guilty on all counts except the charges of first-degree premeditated murder and first-degree home invasion. Defendant appealed. The Court of Appeals, SAAD, P.J., and JANSEN and K. F. KELLY, JJ., reversed his convictions in an unpublished opinion per curiam, issued May 10, 2011 (Docket No. 296693), holding that the trial court had committed error by denying defendant’s constitutional right to represent himself, and remanded the case for a new trial. The Supreme Court denied the prosecution’s application for leave to appeal. 490 Mich 861 (2011). The prosecution subsequently filed an amended information that set forth as charges all the offenses that defendant had initially been convicted of. Defendant moved to dismiss the felony-murder charge, arguing that the Double Jeopardy Clause prevented a second prosecution on that charge because he had previously been acquitted of the only predicate felony for that crime, the predicate crime being one of the elements of felony murder. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss, agreeing that a second jury could not reconsider the home-invasion element of felony murder given the preclusive effect of defendant’s acquittal of first- degree home invasion. Following the granting of the prosecution’s interlocutory application for leave to appeal, the Court of Appeals, MURPHY, C.J., and O’CONNELL and WHITBECK, JJ., reversed in an unpublished opinion per curiam, issued November 15, 2012 (Docket No. 311253), reinstated the felony-murder charge, and remanded the case. Citing United States v Powell, 469 US 57 (1984), for the proposition that a jury has the prerogative to return inconsistent verdicts, the panel held that because the jury’s verdict had been inconsistent, the inconsistency negated the application of the collateral-estoppel doctrine to the second prosecution. The Supreme Court granted defendant leave to appeal. 494 Mich 853 (2013).

In an opinion by Justice MCCORMACK, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices CAVANAGH and KELLY, the Supreme Court held:

The collateral-estoppel strand of the Double Jeopardy Clause prevents the prosecution from charging a defendant with felony murder a second time when the defendant was convicted in the first trial of felony murder but was acquitted of the only predicate felony that supported the felony-murder charge and the felony-murder conviction was subsequently vacated.

1. The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment protects defendants against the threat of successive prosecutions for the same offense and multiple punishments for the same offense. Collateral estoppel, also known as issue preclusion, is a common-law doctrine that requires that once a court has decided an issue of fact or law necessary to its judgment, the decision may preclude relitigation of the issue in a suit on a different cause of action involving a party to the first case. Double jeopardy and collateral estoppel conceptually overlap, and in Ashe v Swenson, 397 US 436 (1970), the United States Supreme Court constitutionalized collateral estoppel within the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee against double jeopardy. Ashe involved a defendant who had been tried and acquitted of robbing one member of a poker game and was subsequently charged with and convicted of the robbing a different poker player. Considering the question of whether a rational jury could have grounded its verdict on an issue other than that which the defendant sought to foreclose from consideration, Ashe held that the single rationally conceivable issue in dispute before the jury was whether the defendant had been one of the robbers and that the second prosecution, which necessarily required relitigating this already determined issue, violated the Fifth Amendment. Yeager v United States, 557 US 110 (2009), involved a jury that acquitted the defendant of various fraud charges but could not reach a verdict on insider-trading charges. The acquittals and hung counts were therefore logically inconsistent because to have acquitted the defendant of the fraud counts, the jury would have had to decide that he had not possessed insider information, which should have led a rational jury to also acquit him of the insider-trading charges. Yeager held that this apparent inconsistency did not change the preclusive force of the acquittal under the Double Jeopardy Clause in a second prosecution because a hung count was not legally meaningful and could not defeat the preclusive force of the acquittals.

2. Dunn v United States, 284 US 390 (1932), held that inconsistent verdicts within a single jury trial are permissible because they might have been the result of compromise or a mistake on the part of the jury, but verdicts cannot be upset by speculation or inquiry into those matters. Inconsistent verdicts do not require reversal because juries are not held to any rules of logic and are not required to explain their decisions. Powell reaffirmed this principle in the situation of a defendant who had been acquitted of the predicate felony but convicted of the compound felony and argued that the principles of collateral estoppel should be incorporated into an inconsistent-verdict case.

3. Because Powell involved an appeal from a single trial, no double jeopardy concerns were present. While the verdict in Powell was inconsistent, the doctrine of collateral estoppel was not relevant. Collateral estoppel, like double jeopardy more broadly, necessarily presupposes some passage of time between a final adjudication of an issue at one time and the threat of a subsequent adjudication of the same issue. The Court of Appeals apparently extrapolated from Powell the proposition that application of collateral estoppel is only appropriate when there was a prior consistent verdict. Since Powell did not concern a second prosecution, however, and therefore no double jeopardy concerns were implicated, the Court of Appeals’ reliance on Powell to authorize charging defendant with felony murder a second time was misplaced given that his objection sounded in double jeopardy, not the inconsistency of his initial verdict.

4. Yeager embodied the proposition that if an issue has been finally resolved at one moment in time, the same issue cannot be resolved differently at a subsequent time. Defendant was acquitted of first-degree home invasion (the only predicate felony that could support a conviction of felony murder and was therefore an element of felony murder), a charge that defendant again faced. Convicting him of felony murder would require the same factual basis as home invasion (of which he had been previously and finally acquitted), which Yeager prevents. Given that defendant had been acquitted of home invasion, the prosecution was barred from charging him with that crime again, even though a legal error at his first trial required vacating his convictions. The inconsistency in defendant’s initial jury verdict did not alter this fundamental principle given the subsequent appellate reversal of all his convictions. The initial guilty verdicts were gone. Although defendant had been convicted of felony murder, that conviction had since been vacated because it was constitutionally infirm and defendant no longer stood convicted of that crime. The only final adjudication that would carry into his second trial would be his acquittal of first-degree home invasion, which must be given effect in the retrial under the collateral-estoppel prong of double jeopardy. Defendant’s reversed felony-murder conviction here must be treated exactly as the hung counts were treated in Yeager. Neither a hung count nor a count that is reversed on appeal can defeat the preclusive effect of an acquittal. Like a hung count, a reversed count is not a final adjudication; by operation of law, the finality of the conviction has been undone. When a legal error requires the reversal of a defendant’s convictions, those convictions are no longer adjudications at all. Reversal for trial error, as distinguished from evidentiary sufficiency, does not constitute a decision to the effect that the prosecution failed to prove its case. It implies nothing with respect to the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The same is not true of a defendant’s acquittal. An acquittal is never recast or disturbed, no matter what error might have produced it. Defendant would begin his second trial in this case with only one perfected adjudication: his acquittal of first-degree home invasion. The prosecution would be free to retry defendant on all the other vacated convictions, but the Double Jeopardy Clause collaterally estopped a new prosecution for felony murder.

Reversed and remanded.