Saturday, March 21, 2009
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear oral argument tomorrow on the case of Yeager v. United States, (see here) a case that reexamines the collateral estoppel rule in a white collar context. The question before the Court is:
"Whether, when a jury acquits a defendant on multiple counts but fails to reach a verdict on other counts that share a common element, and, after a complete review of the record, the court of appeals determines that the only rational basis for the acquittals is that an essential element of the hung counts was determined in the defendant's favor, collateral estoppel bars a retrial on the hung counts."
The defendants in the case "were tried on various counts for their actions while employed at Enron Broadband Services ("EBS"). The jury acquitted Defendants on some of these counts but hung on others, after which the United States ("Government") again indicted Defendants on some of the mistried counts." The issue is now whether collateral estoppel can apply to hung counts.
There is no question that the circuits are split on this issue and that Supreme Court guidance is needed. But a lot is at stake here in that the collateral estoppel rule, an important component of the constitutional protection against double-jeopardy, is being tested. Some of the questions here are: Should prosecutors be rewarded for "overcharging their cases and then failing to prove the superfluous charges?" Should courts provide legal oversight when it is clear that the law can only be interpreted one way? If the acquitted counts estop the hung counts, can a court chalk this up to jury irrationality and just permit the jury a second bite at the apple?
Addendum - Briefs can be found on this ABA site here. (w/ a hat tip to Jack Townsend)