447 U.S. 10 (1980), 79-383, Standefer v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 79-383
Citation:447 U.S. 10, 100 S.Ct. 1999, 64 L.Ed.2d 689
Party Name:Standefer v. United States
Case Date:June 09, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

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447 U.S. 10 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1999, 64 L.Ed.2d 689



United States

No. 79-383

United States Supreme Court

June 9, 1980

Argued April 14, 1980




Petitioner was indicted for, inter alia, aiding and abetting a named Internal Revenue Service agent in accepting unlawful compensation, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 2, which provides that whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal. Prior to the indictment, the IRS agent was acquitted of certain of the § 7214(a)(2) violations which petitioner was accused of aiding and abetting. Petitioner moved to dismiss his indictment as to aiding and abetting these violations on the ground that, since the agent had been acquitted of such violations, petitioner could not be convicted of aiding and abetting them. The District Court denied the motion, and after trial petitioner was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: A defendant accused of aiding and abetting in the commission of a federal offense may properly be convicted despite the prior acquittal of the alleged actual perpetrator of the offense. Pp. 14-26.

(a) Read against its common law background, 18 U.S.C. § 2 evinces a clear congressional intent to permit such a conviction. The section gives general effect to what had always been the common law rule for second-degree principals (principals who were actually or constructively present at the scene of the crime and aided and abetted its commission) and for all misdemeanants. The legislative history of § 2 confirms this understanding. With the enactment of § 2, all participants in conduct violating a federal criminal statute are "principals," and, as such, they are punishable for their criminal conduct, the fate of other participants being irrelevant. Pp. 15-20.

(b) The Government is not barred, under the doctrine of nonmutual collateral estoppel, from relitigating the issue of whether the IRS agent accepted unlawful compensation. Application of that doctrine is not appropriate here. In a criminal case, the Government is often without the kind of "full and fair opportunity to litigate" that is a prerequisite of estoppel. The application of collateral estoppel in criminal cases is also complicated by rules of evidence and exclusion unique to criminal law. Finally, in this case the important federal interest in the enforcement

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of the criminal law outweighs the economy concerns undergirding the collateral estoppel doctrine. Pp. 21-25.

610 F.2d 1076, affirmed.

BURGER, C.J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case to decide whether a defendant accused of aiding and abetting in the commission of a federal offense may be convicted after the named principal has been acquitted of that offense.


In June, 1977, petitioner Standefer was indicted on four counts of making gifts to a public official, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 201(f), and on five counts of aiding and abetting a revenue official in accepting compensation in addition to that authorized by law, in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 2.1 The indictment charged that

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petitioner, as head of Gulf Oil Corp.'s tax department, had authorized payments for five vacation trips to Cyril Niederberger, who then was the Internal Revenue Service agent in charge of the audits of Gulf's federal income tax returns.2 Specifically, the indictment alleged that Gulf, on petitioner's authorization, had paid for vacations for Niederberger in Pompano Beach (July 1971), Miami (January 1973), Absecon (August-September 1973), Pebble Beach (April 1974), and Las Vegas (June 1974). The four counts under 18 U.S.C. § 201(f) related to the Miami, Absecon, Pebble Beach, and Las Vegas vacations; the five counts under 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 were one for each vacation.3

Prior to the filing of this indictment, Niederberger was separately charged in a 10-count indictment -- two counts for each of the five vacations -- with violating 18 U.S.C. § 201(g)4 and 26 U.S.C. § 7214(a)(2). In February, 1977, Niederberger was tried on these charges. He was convicted on four counts of violating § 201(g) in connection with the vacations in Miami, Absecon, Pebble Beach, and Las Vegas, and of

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two counts of violating § 7214(a)(2) for the Pebble Beach and Las Vegas trips. He was acquitted on the § 201(g) count involving the Pompano Beach trip and on the three counts under § 7214(a)(2) charging him with accepting payments from Gulf for trips to Pompano Beach, Miami, and Absecon.5

In July, 1977, following Niederberger's trial and before the trial in his own case commenced, petitioner moved to dismiss the counts under § 7214(a)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 2 which charged him with aiding and abetting Niederberger in connection with the Pompano Beach, Miami, and Absecon vacations. Petitioner argued that, because Niederberger, the only named principal, had been acquitted of accepting unlawful compensation as to those vacations, he could not be convicted of aiding and abetting in the commission of those offenses. The District Court denied the motion.

Petitioner's case then proceeded to trial on all nine counts. At trial, petitioner admitted authorizing payment for all five vacation trips, but testified that the trips were purely social, and not designed to influence Niederberger in the performance of his official duties. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all nine counts.6 Petitioner was sentenced to concurrent terms of six months' imprisonment followed by two years' probation; he was fined a total of $18,000 -- $2,000 on each count.

[100 S.Ct. 2003] Petitioner appealed his convictions to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, claiming, inter alia, that he could not

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be convicted of aiding and abetting a principal, Niederberger, when that principal had been acquitted of the charged offense. By a divided vote, the Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, rejected that contention. 610 F.2d 1076 (1979). It concluded that "the outcome of Niederberger's prosecution has no effect on [petitioner's] conviction." Id. at 1078.

Because the question presented is one of importance to the administration of criminal justice on which the Courts of Appeals are in conflict, we granted certiorari.7 444 U.S. 1011. We affirm.


Petitioner makes two main arguments: first, that Congress, in enacting 18 U.S.C. § 2, did not intend to authorize prosecution of an aider and abettor after the principal has been acquitted of the offense charged; second, that, even if § 2 permits such a prosecution, the Government should be barred from relitigating the issue of whether Niederberger accepted unlawful compensation in connection with the Pompano Beach, Miami, and Absecon vacations.8 The first contention relies largely on the common law as it prevailed before the enactment of 18 U.S.C. § 2. The second rests on the contemporary doctrine of nonmutual collateral estoppel

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At common law, the subject of principals and accessories was riddled with "intricate" distinctions. 2 J. Stephen, A History of the Criminal Law of England 231 (1883). In felony cases, parties to a crime were divided into four distinct categories: (1) principals in the first degree who actually perpetrated the offense; (2) principals in the second degree who were actually or constructively present at the scene of the crime and aided or abetted its commission; (3) accessories before the fact who aided or abetted the crime, but were not present at its commission; and (4) accessories after the fact who rendered assistance after the crime was complete. See W. LaFave & A. Scott, Criminal Law § 63 (1972); 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *33; Perkins, Parties to Crime, 89 U.Pa.L Rev. 581 (1941). By contrast, misdemeanor cases "d[id] not admit of accessaries either before or after the fact," United States v. Hartwell, 26 F.Cas.196, 199 (No. 15,318) (CC Mass. 1869); instead, all parties to a misdemeanor, whatever their roles, were principals. United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 281 (1943); 1 C. Torcia, Wharton's Criminal Law § 33 (14th ed.1978).

Because, at early common law, all parties to a felony received the death penalty, certain procedural rules developed tending to shield accessories from punishment. See LaFave & Scott, supra at 499. Among them was one of special relevance to this case: the rule that an accessory could not be convicted without the prior conviction of the principal offender. See 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown *623-*624. Under this rule, the principal's flight, death, or acquittal barred prosecution of the accessory. And if the principal were pardoned or his conviction reversed on appeal, the accessory's [100 S.Ct. 2004] conviction could not stand. In every way, "an accessory follow[ed], like a shadow, his principal." 1 J. Bishop, Criminal Law § 666 (8th ed. 1892).

This procedural bar applied only to the prosecution of accessories

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in felony cases. In misdemeanor cases, where all participants were deemed principals, a prior acquittal of the actual perpetrator did not prevent the subsequent conviction of a person who rendered assistance. Queen v. Humphreys and Turner, [1965] 3 All E.R. 689; Queen v. Burton, 13 Cox C.C. 71, 75 (Crim.App. 1875). And in felony cases, a principal in the second degree could be convicted notwithstanding the prior acquittal of the first-degree principal. King v. Taylor and Shaw, 168 Eng.Rep. 283 (1785); Queen v. Wallis, 1 Salk. 334, 91 Eng.Rep. 294 (K.B. 1703); `Brown v. State, 28 Ga.199 (1859); State v. Whitt, 113 N.C. 716, 18 S.E. 715 (1893). Not surprisingly, considerable effort was expended in...

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