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Commonwealth v. Leonard

Supreme Court of Virginia

October 19, 2017

COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA
v.
GREGORY EDWARD LEONARD, II

         FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

          PRESENT: Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, McClanahan, Powell, Kelsey, and McCullough, JJ., and Millette, S.J.

          OPINION

          ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN, JUSTICE.

         Gregory Edward Leonard II was convicted of driving under the influence ("DUI"), third or subsequent offense within a five-year period. The Court of Appeals vacated the sentence for DUI, third offense, and remanded the case to the trial court for sentencing on DUI, second offense. The Court of Appeals ruled that the Commonwealth was collaterally estopped in this case from using a valid DUI conviction as a predicate offense for sentencing enhancement because a general district court, in an unrelated case, previously ruled that the Commonwealth could not use the same DUI conviction as a predicate offense for sentencing enhancement. We conclude the Court of Appeals erred in applying the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and therefore, we will reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A grand jury indicted Leonard for driving under the influence, in violation of Code § 18.2-266, third or subsequent offense within five years, in connection with an accident that occurred on March 26, 2012. See Code § 18.2-270(C)(1).[1] At a bench trial in the circuit court, the Commonwealth introduced certified copies of DUI conviction orders entered in 2010 and 2012 to establish that Leonard had committed three DUI offenses within a five-year period.[2]The 2010 conviction order was entered by the General District Court of the City of Virginia Beach and recited that Leonard was present at trial, was represented by counsel, and pled guilty to the charge of DUI, first offense.[3] The 2012 conviction order was entered by the Circuit Court of the City of Virginia Beach, which heard the matter on appeal from the general district court, and recited that Leonard was present at trial, was represented by counsel, and pled guilty to the charge of DUI, first offense.

         Although Leonard did not object to the admission into evidence of the 2012 conviction order, Leonard asserted that the principle of collateral estoppel precluded the Commonwealth from relying upon the 2010 conviction order. Leonard claimed that the General District Court of the City of Virginia Beach, in the 2012 case that was later appealed to the circuit court, ruled that the Commonwealth could not rely upon the 2010 DUI conviction for sentencing enhancement. Leonard introduced a certified copy of the conviction order entered by the general district court in 2012, which noted that Leonard had been charged with DUI, second offense, but found guilty of DUI, first offense. Leonard argued that the general district court ruled in 2012 that the Commonwealth could not introduce the 2010 DUI conviction to establish DUI, second offense, because it found that Leonard had not been advised of his constitutional rights, in violation of Boykin v. Alabama, 395 U.S. 238, 242 (1969), before pleading guilty to the 2010 offense.[4]

         Leonard maintained that because the issue of whether the Commonwealth could rely upon the 2010 DUI conviction for sentencing enhancement had been previously determined in the 2012 general district court proceeding, the Commonwealth was precluded, under the principle of collateral estoppel, from relitigating this issue. Specifically, Leonard asserted that "[t]he issue there that was litigated was whether or not the 2010 conviction could be introduced to enhance [the first offense to] a second offense" and that "the Commonwealth is trying to relitigate that same issue to try to use the 2010 [conviction] to make this a third offense."

         The Commonwealth responded to Leonard's argument by noting that the general district court's order did not provide a basis for the reduction of DUI, second offense, to DUI, first offense, and that in any event, the general district court's judgment was annulled once the matter was appealed to the circuit court. Upon the conclusion of the evidence, however, the Commonwealth stipulated that the basis for the general district court's 2012 ruling was its finding that Leonard was not advised of his constitutional rights before pleading guilty in 2010.[5]

         The trial court overruled Leonard's objection to the admission of the 2010 DUI conviction order and found Leonard guilty of DUI, third or subsequent offense, but permitted the parties to brief the issue of collateral estoppel prior to sentencing.[6] At the sentencing hearing, the trial court ruled that collateral estoppel did not apply to preclude the Commonwealth's reliance on the 2010 DUI conviction as a predicate offense for sentencing enhancement. The trial court stated that Leonard "failed to prove two of the elements, litigation of the issue and final judgment on the merits."

         Leonard appealed to the Court of Appeals, which vacated the trial court's judgment and held that the Commonwealth was barred under the doctrine of collateral estoppel from using the 2010 DUI conviction as a predicate offense under the enhanced penalty provisions of Code § 18.2-270(C)(1).[7] Leonard v. Commonwealth, 66 Va.App. 270, 294, 784 S.E.2d 315, 327 (2016). Initially, the Court of Appeals observed that "[a]ssuming" the general district court in the 2012 proceeding concluded that the 2010 DUI conviction was "somehow invalid, " "its actions were an impermissible collateral review of a valid conviction." Id. at 288, 784 S.E.2d at 324.[8] Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals concluded that Leonard was entitled to rely on the general district court's 2012 ruling, though made in error, because the Commonwealth's stipulation established that the validity of the 2010 DUI conviction was actually litigated in the 2012 general district court proceeding and that ruling was not nullified by the appeal to the circuit court. Id. at 291-94, 784 S.E.2d at 326-27. Finding the evidence insufficient to support Leonard's conviction for DUI, third offense, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for Leonard to be sentenced for DUI, second offense. Id. at 294-95, 784 S.E.2d at 327.

         II. ANALYSIS

         On appeal to this Court, the Commonwealth contends that the Court of Appeals erred in holding that collateral estoppel barred the Commonwealth from introducing Leonard's 2010 DUI conviction order for sentencing enhancement. We apply a de novo standard of review to the issue of whether the principle of collateral estoppel is applicable in a given case. Commonwealth v. Davis, 290 Va. 362, 368, 777 S.E.2d 555, 558 (2015).

         In Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970), the United States Supreme Court "incorporated the doctrine of collateral estoppel into the Fifth Amendment proscription against double jeopardy." Clodfelter v. Commonwealth, 218 Va. 98, 105, 235 S.E.2d 340, 344 (1977), rev'd on other grounds, 218 Va. 619, 238 S.E.2d 820 (1977). The principle of collateral estoppel "means simply that when an issue of ultimate fact has once been determined by a valid and final judgment, that issue cannot again be litigated between the same parties in any future lawsuit." Ashe, 397 U.S. at 443. See also Funny Guy, LLC v. Lecego, LLC, 293 Va. 135, 142, 795 S.E.2d 887, 890 (2017) ("Under the concept of collateral estoppel, 'the parties to the first action and their privies are precluded from litigating [in a subsequent suit] any issue of fact actually litigated and essential to a valid and final personal judgment in the first action.'") (quoting Rawlings v. Lopez, 267 Va. 4, 4-5, 591 S.E.2d 691, 692 (2004)). In the criminal context, the principle of collateral estoppel "protects the accused from attempts to relitigate the facts underlying a prior ...


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