Dowling v. United States

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Dowling v. United States by Byron White
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

493 U.S. 342

Dowling  v.  United States

No. 88-6025  Argued: Oct. 4, 1989. --- Decided: Jan 10, 1990


Petitioner Dowling was convicted of robbing a Virgin Islands bank while wearing a ski mask and carrying a small pistol. Relying on Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b)-which provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts may be admissible against a defendant for purposes other than character evidence-the Government introduced at trial the testimony of one Henry, who stated that a similarly masked and armed Dowling had been one of two intruders who had entered her home two weeks after the bank robbery. Although Dowling had been acquitted of charges in the Henry case, the Government believed that Henry's description of him strengthened its identification of him as the bank robber and that her testimony linked him to another individual thought to be implicated in the bank robbery. The District Court permitted the introduction of the testimony and twice instructed the jury about Dowling's acquittal and the limited purpose for which the testimony was being admitted. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, ruling that, although the Government was collaterally estopped by the acquittal from offering Henry's testimony at trial and the testimony was inadmissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, its admission was harmless because it was highly probable that the error did not prejudice Dowling. The court declined to apply the more stringent standard of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, 87 S.Ct. 824, 828, 17 L.Ed.2d 705 applicable to constitutional errors because the District Court's error was evidentiary and not of constitutional dimension.


1. The admission of the testimony did not violate the collateral-estoppel component of the Double Jeopardy Clause. The collateral-estoppel doctrine prohibits the Government from relitigating an issue of ultimate fact that has been determined by a valid and final judgment, Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 90 S.Ct. 1189, 25 L.Ed.2d 469 but does not bar in all circumstances the later use of evidence simply because it relates to alleged criminal conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted. Here, the prior acquittal did not determine the ultimate issue in the bank robbery case because in the second trial the Government was not required to show beyond a reasonable doubt that Dowling was the man who entered Henry's house. This decision is consistent with other cases where this Court has held that an acquittal in a criminal case does not preclude the Government from relitigating an issue when it is presented in a subsequent action governed by a lower standard of proof, United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms, 465 U.S. 354, 361-362, 104 S.Ct. 1099, 1104-1105, 79 L.Ed.2d 361; One Lot Emerald Cut Stones v. United States, 409 U.S. 232, 235, 93 S.Ct. 489, 492, 34 L.Ed.2d 438. Even if the lower burden of proof at the second trial did not serve to avoid the collateral-estoppel component of the Double Jeopardy Clause, Dowling failed to satisfy his burden of demonstrating that the first jury determined that he was not one of the men who entered Henry's home. Pp. 347-352.

2. The introduction of the evidence did not violate the due process test of "fundamental fairness." Especially in light of the trial judge's limiting instructions, the testimony was not fundamentally unfair, since the jury was free to assess the truthfulness and significance of the testimony, since the trial court's authority to exclude potentially prejudicial evidence adequately addresses the possibility that introduction of such evidence will create a risk that the jury will convict a defendant based on inferences drawn from the acquitted conduct, since inconsistent verdicts are constitutionally tolerable, and since the tradition that the Government may not force a person acquitted in one trial to defend against the same accusation in a subsequent proceeding is amply protected by the Double Jeopardy Clause. Pp. 352-354.

855 F.2d 114 (CA3 1988), affirmed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and BLACKMUN, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which MARSHALL and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 354.

Robert L. Tucker for petitioner.

Stephen L. Nightingale, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).