United States v. Wilson 8212 1395

Decision Date25 February 1975
Docket NumberNo. 72,72
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. George J. WILSON, Jr. —1395
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

The jury entered a guilty verdict against respondent for a federal offense, but on one of respondent's postverdict motions the District Court dismissed the indictment on the ground that the delay between the offense and the indictment prejudiced respondent's right to a fair trial. The Court of Appeals dismissed the Government's appeal on the ground that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred review of the District Court's ruling. Because the ruling was based on facts brought out at the trial, the Court of Appeals held it was in effect an acquittal. Held: When a trial judge rules in favor of the defendant after a guilty verdict has been entered by the trier of fact, the Government may appeal from that ruling without contravening the Double Jeopardy Clause. Pp. 335-353.

(a) That Clause protects against Government appeals only where there is a danger of subjecting the defendant to a second trial for the same offense, and hence such protection does not attach to a trial judge's postverdict correction of an error of law which would not grant the prosecution a new trial or subject the defendant to multiple prosecutions. Pp. 339-353.

(b) Here the District Court's ruling in respondent's favor could be disposed of on appeal without subjecting him to a second trial at the Government's behest. If he prevails on appeal, the matter will become final, and the Government will not be permitted to bring a second prosecution for the same offense, whereas if he loses, the case must return to the District Court for disposition of his remaining motions. P. 353.

492 F.2d 1345, reversed and remanded.

Andrew L. Frey, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Philip D. Lauer, Easton, Pa., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent George J. Wilson, Jr., was tried in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for converting union funds to his own use, in violation of § 501(c) of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, 73 Stat. 536, 29 U.S.C. § 501(c). The jury entered a guilty verdict, but on a postverdict motion the District Court dismissed the indictment. The court ruled that the delay between the offense and the indictment had prejudiced the defendant, and that dismissal was called for under this Court's decision in United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307, 92 S.Ct. 455, 30 L.Ed.2d 468 (1971). The Government sought to appeal the dismissal to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, but that court held that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred review of the District Court's ruling. 492 F.2d 1345 (1973). We granted certiorari to consider the applicability of the Double Jeopardy Clause to appeals from postverdict rulings by the trial court. 417 U.S. 908, 94 S.Ct. 2603, 41 L.Ed.2d 211 (1974). We reverse.


In April 1968 the FBI began an investigation of respondent Wilson, the business manager of Local 367 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The investigation focused on Wilson's suspected conversion in 1966 of $1,233.15 of union funds to pay part of the expenses of his daughter's wedding reception. The payment was apparently made by a check drawn on union funds and endorsed by the treasurer and the presi- dent of the local union. Respondent contended at trial that he had not authorized the two union officials to make the payment on his behalf and that he did not know the bill for the reception had been paid out of union funds. In June 1970 the FBI completed its investigation and reported to the Organized Crime Strike Force and the local United States Attorney's Office.1 There the matter rested for some 16 months until, three days prior to the running of the statute of limitations, respondent was indicted for illegal conversion of union funds.

Wilson made a pretrial motion to dismiss the indictment on the ground that the Government's delay in filing the action had denied him the opportunity for a fair trial. His chance to mount an effective defense was impaired, Wilson argued, because the two union officers who had signed the check for the reception were unavailable to testify. One had died in 1968, and the other was suffering from a terminal illness. After a hearing, the court denied the pretrial motion, and the case proceeded to trial. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, after which the defendant filed various motions including a motion for arrest of judgment, a motion for a judgment of acquittal, and a motion for a new trial.

The District Court reversed its earlier ruling and dismissed the indictment on the ground that the preindictment delay was unreasonable and had substantially prejudiced the defendant's right to a fair trial. The union treasurer had died prior to 1970, the court noted, so the loss of his testimony could not be attributed to the preindictment delay. The union president, however, had become unavailable during the period of delay. The court ruled that since he was the only remaining witness who could explain the circumstances of the payment of the check, the preindictment delay violated the respondent's Fifth Amendment right to a fair trial. This disposition of the Marion claim made it unnecessary to rule on the defendant's other postverdict motions.

The Government sought to appeal the District Court's ruling pursuant to the Criminal Appeals Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3731, but the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal in a judgment order, citing our decision in United States v. Sisson, 399 U.S. 267, 90 S.Ct. 2117, 26 L.Ed.2d 608 (1970). On the Government's petition for rehearing, the court wrote an opinion in which it reasoned that since the District Court had relied on facts brought out at trial in finding prejudice from the preindictment delay, its ruling was in effect an acquittal. Under the Double Jeopardy Clause, the Court of Appeals held, the Government could not constitutionally appeal the acquittal, even though it was rendered by the judge after the jury had returned a verdict of guilty.


The Government argues that the Court of Appeals read the Double Jeopardy Clause too broadly and that it mischaracterized the District Court's ruling in terming it an acquittal. In the Government's view, the constitutional restriction on governmental appeals is intended solely to protect against exposing the defendant to multiple trials, not to shield every determination favorable to the defendant from appellate review. Since a new trial would not be necessary where the trier of fact has returned a verdict of guilty, the Government argues that it should be permitted to appeal from any adverse postverdict ruling. In the alternative, the Government urges that even if the Double Jeopardy Clause is read to bar appeal of any judgment of acquittal, the District Court's order in this case was not an acquittal and it should therefore be appealable. The respondent argues that under our prior cases the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits appeal of any order discharging the defendant when, as here, that order is based on facts outside the indictment. Because we agree with the Government that the constitutional protection against Government appeals attaches only where there is a danger of subjecting the defendant to a second trial for the same offense, we have no occasion to determine whether the ruling in Wilson's favor was actually an 'acquittal' even though the District Court characterized it otherwise.


This Court early held that the Government could not take an appeal in a criminal case without express statutory authority. United States v. Sanges, 144 U.S. 310, 12 S.Ct. 609, 36 L.Ed. 445 (1892). Not reaching the underlying constitutional issue, the Court held only that the general appeals provisions of the Judiciary Act of 1891, 26 Stat. 827, 828, were not sufficiently explicit to overcome the common-law rule that the State could not sue out a writ of error in a criminal case unless the legislature had expressly granted it that right. 144 U.S., at 318, 322—323, 12 S.Ct. at 612, 613.

Fifteen years later, Congress passed the first Criminal Appeals Act, which conferred jurisdiction on this Court to consider criminal appeals by the Government in limited circumstances. 34 Stat. 1246. The Act permitted the Government to take an appeal from a decision dismissing an indictment or arresting judgment where the decision was based on 'the invalidity, or construction of the statute upon which the indictment is founded,' and from a decision sustaining a special plea in bar, when the defendant had not been put in jeopardy.2 The Act was construed in accordance with the common-law meaning of the terms employed, and the rules governing the conditions of appeal became highly technical.3 This Court had a number of occasions to struggle with the vagaries of the Act;4 in one of the last of these unhappy efforts, we concluded that the Act was 'a failure . . . a most unruly child that has not improved with age.' United States v. Sisson, 399 U.S., at 307, 90 S.Ct., at 2139.

Congress finally disposed of the statute in 1970 and replaced it with a new Criminal Appeals Act intended to broaden the Government's appeal rights.5 While the language of the new Act is not dispositive, the legislative history makes it clear that Congress intended to remove all statutory barriers to Government appeals and to allow appeals whenever the Constitution would permit.

A bill proposed by the Department of Justice would have permitted an appeal by the United States 'from a decision, judgment or order of a district court dismissing an indictment or information or terminating a prosecution in favor of a defendant as to any one or more counts, except that no appeal (would) lie from a judgment of acquittal.' S. 3132; H.R. 14588. The Senate Report on this bill indicated that the Judiciary Committee intended to extend the Government's appeal rights to...

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