Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Ohayon: Acquittal on key factual issue precludes retrial on related count

In U.S. v. Ohayon, No. 05-17045 (April 12, 2007), the Court (Pryor, Birch, Nanble b.d.) held that the government was collaterally estopped from retrying Ohayon on the charge of conspiracy to possess ecstacy with intent to distribute, a count for which the jury was unable to reach a verdict, when the jury had acquitted him, in the same transaction, of the charge of attempted possession with intent to distribute.
Citing Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970), the Court noted that the collateral estoppel inquiry focused on whether a rational jury could have grounded its acquittal on a factual issue other than that which the defendant seeks to foreclose from consideration, taking account of the pleadings, evidence, charge and other relevant matter. Here, Ohayon’s only defense was that he was unaware that the bags he picked up contained drugs. The jury’s questions to the court during deliberations focused on this issue. The evidence supported the defense. Hence, this issue was resolved in Ohayon’s favor with the attempt acquittal at the first trial, and this foreclosed his subsequent conviction on the conspiracy count.
The Court rejected the government’s argument that the very existence of a partial verdict itself meant that the jury must have rested its acquittal and non-decision on different grounds. The Court noted that the precedent upon which the government relied postdated U.S. v. Larkin, 605 F.2d 1360 (5th Cir. 1979), and was inconsistent with Ashe. In addition, one cannot impute a single, rational basis to a mistried count, since, by definition, the jury failed to reach agreement on that count.
The Court rejected the argument that knowledge of the contents of the bags in question was not an essential element of the conspiracy charge. Conspiracy requires proof that the defendant knew the essential nature of the conspiracy, which in this case meant he was aware of the contents of the bags.
The Court distinguished U.S. v. Brown, 983 F.3 201 (11th Cir. 1993). Brown stated that an "identity" of legal issues must exist in order for collateral estoppel to apply. The Court acknowledged that no identity of legal issues existed in Ohayon’s case, because attempt and conspiracy have different elements. But Brown’s "identity" requirement was unnecessary to its holding. Further, Brown departed from earlier precedent, which focused on factual, not legal identity of issues. Finally, Brown has not been followed in subsequent cases.