United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms

Decision Date22 February 1984
Docket NumberNo. 82-1047,82-1047
Citation465 U.S. 354,79 L.Ed.2d 361,104 S.Ct. 1099
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. ONE ASSORTMENT OF 89 FIREARMS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Upon trial in Federal District Court, defendant Mulcahey, who asserted the defense of entrapment, was acquitted of charges of knowingly engaging in the business of dealing in firearms without a license, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1). The Government then instituted this in rem action for forfeiture of the firearms involved, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(d), which authorizes forfeitures of any firearms "involved in or used or intended to be used in, any violation of this chapter." Ordering forfeiture, the District Court rejected Mulcahey's defenses of res judicata and collateral estoppel based on his earlier acquittal. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that because the § 924(d) forfeiture proceeding was criminal and punitive in nature, it was barred by double jeopardy principles in view of Mulcahey's prior acquittal. Relying on Coffey v. United States, 116 U.S. 436, 6 S.Ct. 437, 29 L.Ed. 684, the Court of Appeals also held that the forfeiture action was barred by collateral estoppel, because it was based upon the same facts as the earlier criminal action.

Held: A gun owner's acquittal on criminal charges involving firearms does not preclude a subsequent in rem forfeiture proceeding against those firearms under § 924(d). Pp. 357-366.

(a) To the extent that Coffey v. United States, supra, suggests that collateral estoppel or double jeopardy automatically bars a civil, remedial forfeiture proceeding following an acquittal on related criminal charges, it is disapproved. Cf. Helvering v. Mitchell, 303 U.S. 391, 58 S.Ct. 630, 82 L.Ed. 917; One Lot Emerald Cut Stones v. United States, 409 U.S. 232, 93 S.Ct. 489, 34 L.Ed.2d 438. Pp. 357-361.

(b) The difference in the relative burdens of proof in the criminal and civil actions precludes the application of the doctrine of collateral estoppel. Acquittal on a criminal charge merely reflects the existence of a reasonable doubt as to Mulcahey's guilt, not innocence. Nor did the acquittal negate the possibility that a preponderance of the evidence in the forfeiture proceeding could show that Mulcahey was engaged in an unlicensed firearms business. Pp. 361-362.

(c) The Double Jeopardy Clause does not apply to civil proceedings and is not applicable here. Under the procedural mechanisms established for enforcing forfeitures under § 924(d), Congress intended such forfeitures to be civil and remedial, rather than criminal and punitive. Moreover, the differences in the language of § 924(d), which subjects to forfeiture firearms used or "intended to be used" in substantive offenses, and § 922(a)(1), which does not render unlawful mere intention to deal in firearms without a license, shows that the forfeiture provisions were meant to be broader in scope than the criminal sanctions. The forfeiture provision also furthers broad remedial aims of controlling the indiscriminate flow of firearms. Nor is the statutory scheme so punitive either in purpose or effect as to negate Congress' intention to establish a civil remedial mechanism. Pp. 362-366.

685 F.2d 913 (4th Cir.1982), reversed and remanded.

Richard G. Wilkins, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Herbert W. Louthian, Columbia, S.C., for respondent.

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to decide whether a gun owner's acquittal on criminal charges involving firearms precludes a subsequent in rem forfeiture proceeding against those same firearms.

I
A.

On January 20, 1977, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms seized a cache of firearms from the home of Patrick Mulcahey. Mulcahey was subsequently indicted on charges that he had knowingly engaged in the business of dealing in firearms without a license, in violation of 18 U.S.C § 922(a)(1).1 At his criminal trial, Mulcahey admitted that he had no license to deal in firearms and that he had bought and sold firearms during the period set forth in the indictment. His defense was that he had been entrapped into making the illegal firearms transactions. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

Following Mulcahey's acquittal of the criminal charges, the United States, pursuant to its authority under 18 U.S.C. § 924(d),2 instituted this in rem action for forfeiture of the seized firearms.3 On the basis of his earlier acquittal, Mulcahey asserted the defenses of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The United States District Court for the District of South Carolina struck Mulcahey's defenses, reasoning that an in rem forfeiture proceeding under 18 U.S.C. § 924(d) is remedial in nature and is therefore properly characterized as a civil proceeding. 463 F.Supp. 365, 367 (1978). The District Court then concluded that "the firearms here in question were involved in, used or intended to be used in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1). Such firearms are rendered subject to forfeiture under 18 U.S.C. § 924(d), which forfeiture is hereby ordered." 511 F.Supp. 133, 139 (1980).

B

A divided United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, reversed.4 685 F.2d 913 (1982). The en banc majority relied upon two theories for its conclusion that the forfeiture proceeding against these firearms was barred by Mulcahey's prior acquittal, although it did not sharply distinguish between the two. Because the majority considered the § 924(d) forfeiture proceeding to be criminal and punitive in nature, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was barred by double jeopardy principles. Looking to Coffey v. United States, 116 U.S. 436, 6 S.Ct. 437, 29 L.Ed. 684 (1886), as authority, the Court of Appeals also determined that the forfeiture action was barred by collateral estoppel, because it was based upon the same facts as the earlier criminal action. In dissent, four judges argued that neither collateral estoppel nor double jeopardy should preclude forfeiture proceedings brought under § 924(d). 685 F.2d at 918-919 (Winter, J., dissenting). We granted certiorari, --- U.S. ----, 103 S.Ct. 1181, 75 L.Ed.2d 430 (1983), and we reverse.

II

In Coffey v. United States, supra, this Court held that a forfeiture action brought against certain distilling equipment was barred by the owner's prior acquittal on charges of removing and concealing distilled spirits with the intent to defraud the revenue. The Court stated that:

"[W]here an issue raised as to the existence of the act or fact denounced has been tried in a criminal proceeding, instituted by the United States, and a judgment of acquittal has been rendered in favor of a particular person, that judgment is conclusive in favor of such person, on the subsequent trial of a suit in rem by the United States, where, as against him, the existence of the same act or fact is the matter in issue, as a cause for the forfeiture of the property prosecuted in such suit in rem. It is urged as a reason for not allowing such effect to the judgment, that the acquittal in the criminal case may have taken place because of the rule requiring guilt to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and that, on the same evidence, on the question of preponderance of proof, there might be a verdict for the United States, in the suit in rem. Nevertheless, the fact or act has been put in issue and determined against the United States; and all that is imposed by the statute, as a consequence of guilt, is a punishment therefor. There could be no new trial of the criminal prosecution after the acquittal in it; and a subsequent trial of the civil suit amounts to substantially the same thing, with a difference only on the consequences following a judgment adverse to the claimant." Id., 116 U.S., at 443, 6 S.Ct., at 440.

Although the language quoted above incorporates notions of both collateral estoppel and double jeopardy, the Coffey Court did not identify the precise legal foundation for the rule of preclusion it announced. Perhaps for this reason, later decisions of this Court have reflected uncertainty as to the exact scope of the Coffey holding.

In Helvering v. Mitchell, 303 U.S. 391, 58 S.Ct. 630, 82 L.Ed. 917 (1938), the Court considered the preclusive effect of a prior criminal acquittal on a subsequent action for a monetary penalty. The defendant taxpayer in Mitchell was acquitted of charges that he willfully attempted to evade and defeat the income tax by fraudulently misstating certain items on his income tax return. When the Commissioner of Internal Revenue then brought an action to recover a substantial monetary penalty for fraudulent avoidance of income tax, the taxpayer argued that the subsequent penalty action was barred by res judicata, collateral estoppel, and the Coffey rule of preclusion.

This Court, speaking through Justice Brandeis, disagreed. Although the taxpayer argued and the Government conceded that the factual matters at issue in the penalty proceeding had been litigated and determined in the prior criminal action, the Court concluded that "[t]he difference in degree in the burden of proof in criminal and civil cases precludes application of the doctrine of res judicata." Id., at 397, 58 S.Ct., at 632. The Mitchell Court viewed the criminal acquittal as nothing more than a determination that the evidence in the criminal setting was not sufficient to overcome all reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty. See Lewis v. Frick, 233 U.S. 291, 302, 34 S.Ct. 488, 492, 58 L.Ed. 967 (1914). The Court went on to state:

"That acquittal on a criminal charge is not a bar to a civil action by the Government, remedial in its nature, arising out of the same facts on which the criminal proceeding was based has long been settled. Stone v. United States, 167 U.S. 178, 188 [17 S.Ct. 778, 782, 42 L.Ed. 127]; Murphy v. United States, 272 U.S. 630, 631, 632 [47 S.Ct. 218, 71 L.Ed. 446]. Compare Chantangco v. Abaroa, 218 U.S. 476, 480, 481...

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