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Court Discusses the Doctrine of Collateral Estoppel

A New York Criminal Lawyer said in this Criminal case, the defendants stand indicted of felony charges for drug related offenses and weapons possession. The common denominator underlying the charges is that the items of contraband constituting the physical evidence of the commission of these crimes was obtained by the police in the course of the execution of a warrant, for the search of a residential building located at Hughes Avenue in Bronx County.

A New York Criminal Lawyer said that a thorough search of this multiple dwelling building of twenty-five apartments and its common area was conducted by the police pursuant to this warrant on April 3, 1979. The search yielded contraband consisting of weapons, drugs and drug paraphernalia that was the basis for the arrest of twenty-eight persons found in and about the building. Various felony and misdemeanor charges were filed against these persons. In particular, felony complaints were filed against the four defendants at bar since the contraband discovered within their respective apartments constituted a felony. None of the other defendants were charged with the possession of this contraband.

A Nassau CountyCriminal Lawyer said a motion to controvert the search warrant pursuant to CPL 710.50, subdivision 1(c) and CPL 710.60 was then brought in the Criminal Court by defendants’ counsel on behalf of all of the twenty-eight persons that had been arrested in the course of the search. Before this motion was decided, the four present defendants were indicted on the charges contained in the aforementioned felony complaints that had been filed against them. Their cases were thus removed from the jurisdiction of the Criminal Court to that of the Supreme Court. The charges against those remaining defendants that had been charged with felonies were reduced to misdemeanors.

Thereupon, proceedings to hear and determine the motion to controvert the search warrant were held in Criminal Court on behalf of the twenty-four purported misdemeanant defendants. The motion was opposed by the Office of the District Attorney of Bronx County.

A Queens Criminal Lawyer said the issue to be resolved in this Criminal case is whether a judicial order invalidating a search warrant requires the suppression, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, of all evidence seized in the course of the execution of the warrant vis-a-vis defendants who were not parties to the motion to controvert the warrant.

Preliminarily, the Court notes that our Court of Appeals has held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not apply to an unmixed question of law. However, this holding does not pose a barrier to the application of the doctrine in the present case which involves a previous judicial determination that the search warrant in issue was not founded upon probable cause, as “The question of probable cause is a mixed question of law and fact”.

It was further held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel is inapplicable to suppression orders that are of an interlocutory nature. The suppression order presently in issue is not of an interlocutory nature. Rather, it is a final order dispositive of the case against the misdemeanant defendants due to the failure of the People to exercise their right of appeal and to People’s motion dismissing the charges for lack of evidence to proceed as a consequence of the suppression order. Consequently, the Court has determined that this suppression order is a final order that is capable of working a collateral estoppel effect if the other prerequisites of the doctrine are found to exist.

In civil cases the requirements for the application of the doctrine are two-fold: “First, it must be shown that the party against whom collateral estoppel is sought to be invoked had been afforded a full and fair opportunity to contest the decision said to be dispositive of the present controversy. Additionally, there must be proof that the issue in the prior action is identical, and thus decisive, of that in issue in the current action”.

Applying these criteria to the case at hand, it is conceded by the People that the issue of the constitutional validity of this search warrant is identical to the issue decided against them by the suppression order of the Criminal Court. It is further conceded by the People that this determination is decisive of the issue presented in the current motion to suppress the evidence sought to be introduced against the defendants as the fruits of a seizure made in the execution of the very same warrant.

This is an imposing obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. An examination of the criminal cases upon which the People rely, that have imposed the requirement of identity of parties reveals that the context involved an attempt by a defendant to stymie his prosecution by virtue of the fact that a codefendant, who had been tried separately, had been acquitted of charges stemming from the same criminal transaction.

“Additionally, it will normally be impossible to ascertain the exact import of a verdict of acquittal in a criminal trial. It may well be that the acquittal of one defendant is based on some factor which is not relevant to the guilt or innocence of the other defendant. For example, there exist several defenses and affirmative defenses which are personal to a particular defendant and would not affect the guilt or innocence of another person accused of the same crime. Moreover, there always exists the possibility that the jury in the first case will have exercised its so-called ‘mercy’ function despite instructions to the contrary, especially in a case involving multiple crimes arising from the same transaction.

These justifications for requiring identity of parties in the context of a determination of the issue of guilt by verdict after trial clearly do not pertain to the process of a judicial finding of a lack of probable cause for the issuance of a search warrant. Where, as in the instant case, the written opinion of the judge granting the suppression motion sets forth his findings of fact and conclusions of law upon which the order of suppression is rendered, there is no room for speculation about the factual and legal issues that were actually decided.

Leave to appeal was denied by the Court of Appeals. The defendant then sought habeas corpus relief in the federal courts. The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that collateral estoppel based upon the Queens suppression order would not merely be appropriate against the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, it would be constitutionally required as a matter of due process of law to protect the defendant from relitigation in Nassau of the suppression issue.

The two searches were therefore held not to be severable for purposes of the collateral estoppel effect of the lack of probable cause determination, even though the Queens County suppression order had been limited to the search of the car’s interior and had not addressed itself to the search of the trunk. However, the Second Circuit denied the petition for habeas corpus relief due to the failure of the defendant to raise the collateral estoppel issue at his Nassau County trial.

“Collateral estoppel, as distinguished from the principle of double jeopardy, arises not so much from concern for the peace of mind of the defendant as from a long-recognized equitable reaction against allowing a party to relitigate issues which have already been decided against him. Accordingly, while there is some flexibility in regard to those who may invoke collateral estoppel by judgment, it is essential that the party sought to be estopped be identical to, or a strict privity with, the party who previously had his day in court”

The People have contended that it would be unfair to collaterally estop them from relitigating the suppression issue herein as, in the event they had prevailed in the Criminal Court, the denial of suppression could not now be asserted against these defendants who were not a party to that proceeding. Mutuality of estoppel is thus lacking. However, the short answer to this is that it has been established that the lack of mutuality is not a bar to a defendant’s collaterally estopping the prosecution from relitigating issues previously adjudged against them.

Based upon all of the foregoing reasons, the court finds the People are collaterally estopped from relitigating the issue of the constitutionality of the search warrant that was decided against them by the order of suppression of the Criminal Court. Accordingly, the defendant’s motion to controvert the search warrant and to suppress the evidence seized in its execution is granted.

Are you a victim of an illegal arrest? Our Bronx County Criminal lawyers here in Stephen Bilkis and Associates will help you prosecute the responsible arresting officer. In case of other kinds of criminal case, you can consult our Bronx County Drug Possession attorneys.

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