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Conviction for illegal reentry was dismissed where the government was collaterally estopped from proving the defendant was alien non-citizen

In this unusual result, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed a conviction and dismissed the case because it found the government would be legally barred from proving a crucial element of the offense. The defendant in U.S. v Valdiviez-Garza
was convicted in the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Florida, of illegally entry by an alien who had been previously removed or deported, in violation section 1326(a). To convict of this offense, the government had to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant (1) was an alien at the time, (2) who had previously been removed or deported, (3) and had reentered the U.S. after removal; (4) without having received the express consent of the Attorney General. The defendant claimed the government was collaterally estopped in this case from presenting evidence and litigating the defendant’s alienage because of a prior acquittal.

An element of the offense required proof the defendant was an alien at the time of the offense. The defendant had previously been charged following a prior reentry incident, and he was tried and acquitted. In the earlier criminal trial, the defendant disputed the government’s claim that the defendant was an alien with proof he derived his citizenship through his father. The defendant was acquitted. Because the alienage issue was disputed at the prior trial and the jury acquitted, the 11th Circuit found there was reasonable doubt that the defendant was an alien and the government was collaterally estopped in this case from arguing the defendant is an alien. Under the collateral estoppel doctrine, when an issued of fact has been determined by a final judgment, the issue cannot be litigated again between the same parties in any future lawsuit. To determine whether collateral estoppel applies in a criminal proceeding, first the court must ascertain what facts were necessarily determined during the acquittal at the first trial. Second, the court must decide whether the facts determined as part of the prior acquittal are an essential element of the offense charged in the subsequent proceeding.

In the prior acquittal, the jury’s acquittal in the prior trial was base upon reasonable doubt about a single element, that is the whether Valdiviez was an alien. This was the only disputed element of the prior offense. The record shows that the jury determined there was reasonable doubt that Valdiviez was an alien.

Collateral estoppel is rarely invoked in federal criminal cases to prevent the government from going forward with a criminal charge. The 11th Circuit reversed the conviction and ordered a dismissal of the indictment, because the government would be unable prove the essential element of alienage. However, the collateral estoppel doctrine in this reentry prosecution will not foreclose the determination alienage issue in all future proceedings. An acquittal in a criminal case does not preclude the Government from relitigating the issue in an immigration related proceeding or any other proceeding where the action is governed by a lower standard of proof.

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