The Use of Sentencing Findings as a Collateral Estoppel Weapon in Subsequent Civil Litigation

By Baker, Jonathan Scott | Notre Dame Law Review, February 2010 | Go to article overview

The Use of Sentencing Findings as a Collateral Estoppel Weapon in Subsequent Civil Litigation


Baker, Jonathan Scott, Notre Dame Law Review


INTRODUCTION

Should plaintiffs or defendants be permitted to use judicial findings made in the limited setting of a federal criminal sentencing hearing as a weapon in subsequent civil litigation? In the contemporary U.S. justice system, a majority of prosecutions do not actually proceed to trial, but are resolved by a guilty plea. (1) There are numerous reasons that criminal prosecutions result in guilty pleas rather than a trial. (2) The rarity of criminal trials often leaves sentencing as the most important stage of the criminal process. (3) In the federal system, before pronouncing the sentence a judge must make factual findings. These findings may relate to uncharged conduct that could later become the source of civil litigation. In many cases, because of the lack of a trial, most of the underlying facts surrounding the criminal offense are not fleshed out until the sentencing process. But in the limited context of a sentencing hearing many procedural rules that constrain litigants in civil or criminal trials are unavailable.

The federal system has a general policy favoring preclusion of issues that have been decided in previous litigation. It is well established that a criminal conviction by a jury verdict or a guilty plea has preclusive effect in subsequent civil litigation as to the issues which are identical to the matters necessarily decided by the judgment in the criminal case. (4) On the other hand, whether a federal judge's criminal sentencing findings also have preclusive effect is not a settled issue. Some federal courts in civil suits have used the doctrine of collateral estoppel to prevent the relitigation of factual issues that were previously decided in the limited context of a sentencing hearing where the civil suit was based on the same set of underlying facts as the earlier criminal prosecution. (5) This usually occurs when there is a civil suit for damages based on the same underlying set of facts as a previous criminal conviction. The most common scenario is when a civil suit is brought by a government agency based on the same underlying transaction as a previous criminal conviction. The SEC has argued that collateral estoppel should presumptively apply to sentencing findings on the same basis as it does in other contexts. (6) One commentator has even claimed that there is no reason to treat sentencing findings differently than any other type of judgments. He argues that "[i]f a defendant can be sent to prison ... on the basis of a sentencing finding, that finding should, as a general rule, also have preclusive effect in a civil suit." (7) This commentator claims that "[i]f sentencing findings are an adequate basis for keeping people in prison, surely they must be an adequate basis for taking away people's money." (8)

Part I of this Note examines the current federal sentencing process. Part II explains the current state of the law regarding the preclusive effect given to a judge's sentencing findings. Part III advocates that federal courts adopt a bright line rule that bars per se criminal sentencing findings from having preclusive effect in subsequent civil litigation. This argument is based on the Sixth (9) and Seventh Amendments, (10) as well as the problems of procedural and substantive fairness presented by this practice.

I. THE FEDERAL SENTENCING PROCESS

In 1984, Congress adopted the Sentencing Reform Act, (11) which established the Sentencing Commission and authorized the creation of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (12) The purpose of this legislation was to reduce judicial discretion in fixing criminal sentences and to increase uniformity across the federal system. (13) At the time the Guidelines were adopted there was a widespread belief among policymakers that significant disparities existed among sentences for the same underlying acts both between different judges and between different regions, and that the enactment of a guidelines system was the best way to increase uniformity. …

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