104.4Double Jeopardy

Collateral Estoppel
Last Updated: 12/01/23

Key Concepts

  • Once an issue of ultimate fact has been resolved by final judgment, it cannot be relitigated in a future case by the same parties.
  • Defendant has the burden of proving the doctrine applies in order to preclude the state from relitigating the issue.


Collateral estoppel is a related component of double jeopardy which dictates that once an issue of ultimate fact has been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot be litigated again between the same parties in a future prosecution. Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970) (when defendant was acquitted of the robbery of one of six poker players, and identity of the defendant was the single issue in dispute, later prosecution for the robbery of a different poker player was barred by collateral estoppel component of double jeopardy); but see Bobby v. Bies, 556 U.S. 825 (2009) (Ashe did not apply because state courts' statements regarding Bies' mental capacity were not necessary to the judgments affirming his death sentence).

The defendant has the burden of proving collateral estoppel on the issue he or she seeks to foreclose from consideration. State v. Warren, 313 N.C. 254 (1985); State v. McKenzie, 292 N.C. 170 (1977). Additionally, the doctrine only applies if the determination of the disputed issue was a necessary component of the earlier finding. See State v. Spargo, 187 N.C. App. 115 (2007). The court ruled in Spargo that the state was not collaterally estopped from prosecuting several counts of obtaining property by false pretenses after a trial judge had dismissed other counts of the same offense for insufficient evidence at a prior trial. It was not absolutely necessary to the defendant’s convictions in the second trial that the second jury find against the defendant on an issue on which the first jury (or, in this case, the judge) found in his favor. See also State v. Bell, 164 N.C. App. 83 (2004) (acquittal of assault on government officer in district court did not bar, under Rule 404(b) or collateral estoppel, admission of evidence of assault in superior court trial de novo of obstructing public officer); State v. Brooks, 337 N.C. 132 (1994) (federal court’s suppression of evidence did not bar admission of same evidence in state court); State v. Edwards, 310 N.C. 142 (1984) (acquittal of felonious larceny did not collaterally estop state from proving felonious breaking or entering at later trial); State v. Solomon, 117 N.C. App. 701 (1995) (acquittal of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia found in cigarette case did not bar later prosecution for possession of cocaine found in cigarette case, based on record before court); but see State v. McKenzie, 292 N.C. 170 (1977) (acquittal of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor collaterally estopped state from using that conduct in later prosecution of involuntary manslaughter); State v. Summers, 351 N.C. 620 (2000) (state was estopped from relitigating issue of whether defendant willfully refused to submit to breath test following judicial determination of issue in appeal of administrative revocation of defendant's driver's license). See also Brower v. Killens, 122 N.C. App. 685 (1996); State v. O’Rourke, 114 N.C. App. 435 (1994); Gibson v. Faulkner, 132 N.C. App. 728 (1999).

“Offensive” Collateral Estoppel

Under some circumstances, the state may apply the principle of collateral estoppel against a defendant, which is commonly known as “offensive” collateral estoppel. For example, in State v. Cornelius, 219 N.C. App. 329 (2012), the court ruled that the trial court did not err by allowing offensive collateral estoppel to establish the underlying felony for the defendant's felony murder conviction. The defendant was charged with felony-murder and an underlying felony of burglary. At the first trial the jury found the defendant guilty of burglary but could not reach a verdict on felony murder. The trial court entered a PJC on the burglary and declared a mistrial as to felony murder. At the retrial, the trial judge instructed the jury with respect to felony murder that "because it has previously been determined beyond a reasonable doubt in a prior criminal proceeding that [the defendant] committed first degree burglary . . . . you should consider that this element [of felony murder (that defendant committed the felony of first degree burglary)] has been proven to you beyond a reasonable doubt." Citing State v. Dial, 122 N.C. App. 298 (1996), the court ruled that the trial court’s instruction was proper. See also State v. Ellis, 262 N.C. 446 (1964) (determination of paternity may not be relitigated by defendant in later prosecution for nonsupport of illegitimate child); State v. Dial, 122 N.C. App. 298 (1996) (jury’s special verdict finding North Carolina had jurisdiction to try criminal charge, accepted by judge before declaring mistrial at murder trial, was res judicata and barred defendant from relitigating the jurisdiction issue at retrial); State v. Lewis, 311 N.C. 727 (1984) (conviction of nonsupport of minor children collaterally estopped defendant from relitigating paternity in later child enforcement agency’s civil action for indemnification of support payments made for minor children).

Portions of this entry were excerpted from the 2013 North Carolina Defender Manual, Volume II, Chapter 31.