Bravo-Fernandez v. United States

PETITIONER: Juan Bravo-Fernandez, et al.
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico

DOCKET NO.: 15-537
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: US ()
GRANTED: Mar 28, 2016
ARGUED: Oct 04, 2016
DECIDED: Nov 29, 2016

ADVOCATES:
Lisa S. Blatt - For petitioners
Elizabeth B. Prelogar - For respondent

Facts of the case

In May 2005, Juan Bravo-Fernandez, the president of a private security firm in Puerto Rico, and Hector Martinez-Maldonado, a member of the Puerto Rican Senate, traveled to Las Vegas to see a boxing match. Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado were later indicted on charges that Bravo-Fernandez’s payment for the trip was connected to Martinez-Maldonado’s support of legislation beneficial to the security firm. The charges included violations of the federal bribery statute, conspiracy, and the Travel Act, which prohibits travel in interstate commerce for a criminal purpose -- in this case, the violation of the federal bribery statute. The jury convicted the defendants of violating the federal bribery statute, but found the defendants not guilty of conspiracy to violate the statute or of violating the Travel Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit vacated the convictions for violating the federal bribery statute because the jury was improperly instructed about what the government needed to prove. The appellate court remanded the case.

Based on this holding, the district court entered an order that acquitted the defendants, but that order was vacated after the government clarified that the appellate court’s decision vacating the federal bribery convictions did not require the district court to enter an order of acquittal. The district court subsequently entered an order that clarified that the bribery convictions were vacated. The defendants moved to reinstate the initial order and argued that it was a judgment of acquittal that, under the Double Jeopardy Clause, could not be rescinded. The district court denied the motion. The defendants then moved for acquittal and argued that the original acquittals for the Travel Act and conspiracy charges prevented the government from relitigating the bribery charges because a jury had already determined that the government failed to prove elements essential to conviction under the bribery statute. The defendants argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits relitigation of these issues. The district court denied the motion, and the appellate court affirmed.

Question

Under the Double Jeopardy Clause, does the fact that a decision was vacated as unconstitutional prevent that case's acquittal from barring further prosecution on issues already decided in the defendant’s favor?

Media for Bravo-Fernandez v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 04, 2016 in Bravo-Fernandez v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Case No. 15-537, Bravo-Fernandez and Martinez-Maldonado v. the United States. Ms. Blatt.

Lisa S. Blatt:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: For three reasons, acquittals should have full effect under the Double Jeopardy Clause without regard to invalid vacated convictions. First, vacated convictions are legal nullities, including under the Double Jeopardy Clause. Second, vacated convictions are not relevant to what a jury necessarily decided.

And third, the government should bear the consequences when overlapping charges produce split verdicts of acquittals and invalid convictions.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

I take it from that you would agree that there might be cases where, under Ashe v. Swenson, there's an acquittal on one count, conviction on the other count, conviction set aside, government can retry the count that had been set aside, on the ground that under Ashe v. Swenson the verdict on the other count was just irrelevant.

Lisa S. Blatt:

That's right.

So we -- the defendant always has to meet the burden of just showing that the acquittal necessarily decided a fact that the government wants to prove in a subsequent prosecution.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In this case, could it be argued -- was the argument before the jury on the conspiracy in the travel counts closely intertwined with 666 so that it -- you can't say the jury decided most likely on some issue that's irrelevant to 666?

Lisa S. Blatt:

Right.

The only issue -- the only issue that was in dispute was whether there was a bribe.

There's no dispute that to get to Las Vegas from Puerto Rico, you have to travel.

There was no dispute that they agreed to go to a boxing match together.

So the only dispute at all was whether there was a bribe. And so when the jury acquitted on conspiracy and travel to commit Program Section 666, bribery, they necessarily decided there was no bribery. Now, the Court of Appeals did not hold that. It was just Petitioners' argument throughout the case, a point that the government just never disputed, a point that the government never disputed in its brief in opposition, and a point that the government never disputed in its brief on the merits.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Ms. Blatt -- but if we're trying to figure out what this jury found, you know, we're not what talking about claim preclusion.

Claim preclusion -- there can never be a new trial on the travel or the conspiracy.

But we're talking about issue preclusion. And this jury, we don't know what it decided because of the inconsistency.

It said yes to bribery on one; no to bribery on the other.

And it might have just decided that conviction of the predicate offense, the bribery, was enough, and that the government had laid it on too strong by adding the conspiracy and the travel count. How do we know that's not what the jury decided?

Lisa S. Blatt:

Well, we know, just looking at the acquittals alone, that we know what they decided. So the question is -- and it's, I think, under Yeager and under the Double Jeopardy Clause -- is this Court, for the first time in the history of its jurisprudence, going to give any meaning to or relevance to an invalid conviction? You have never held an invalid conviction was relevant to or evidence of anything, Justice Ginsburg, and let me just suggest the last place you should start is the Double Jeopardy Clause, where illegal, invalid, vacated convictions always been legal nullities.

Elena Kagan:

Ms. Blatt, it does seem to me that's what your argument rests on in the end: The idea that we shouldn't give any weight or any influence to an invalid conviction.

Is that a double jeopardy principle, or does it come from someplace else?

Lisa S. Blatt:

Both.

So we have our main -- I would call it our legal argument, is just that vacated convictions are legal nullities, void ab initio.

You pretend that they just don't exist.

Elena Kagan:

Yes.

Well, why do we do that? I mean, I take it you have -- you know, usually you do pretend that they don't exist.

There are not many instances that we can find where we do look to vacated convictions for something or other.

But in this case, the vacated conviction surely does tell us something about what the jury did do or what the jury didn't do.

It's part of the factual picture, and so the question has to be, well, notwithstanding that, why shouldn't we look at it? And I guess the -- why?

Lisa S. Blatt:

Right.

Well, so, again, there's the legal argument, which I do want to get back to, but on the factual argument, in Yeager, it was never disputed, and it was beyond obvious that a jury that acquits cannot rationally hang.