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ISSUE ESTOPPLE

R. v. Punko, 2012 SCC 39 (CanLII)

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J.P. and R.P. were charged with several offences, some falling within the prosecutorial jurisdiction of the provincial Crown and others falling within the jurisdiction of the federal Crown.  The provincial prosecutions proceeded first to trial. It was alleged that some of the offences were committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a criminal organization, namely the Hells Angels.  A jury found J.P. and R.P. guilty of a number of offences, but acquitted them on all the criminal organization counts.  Meanwhile, J.P. and R.P. were charged with various federal drug-related offences.  

It was again alleged that they had acted for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the Hells Angels.  In pre-trial motions, J.P. and R.P. contended that the Crown should be estopped from leading evidence that the Hells Angels was a criminal organization, because the issue had already been decided by the jury in the provincial prosecution.  Applying the standard of proof on a balance of probabilities and considering the general circumstances of the case, the judge granted the motions.  The Court of Appeal allowed the appeals on the ground that it could not be said that the only rational explanation for the verdict of acquittal was that the jury had found that the Hells Angels was not a criminal organization.  It ordered a new trial.


                   Held:  The appeals should be dismissed.


                   Per McLachlin C.J. and Deschamps, Rothstein, Cromwell, Moldaver and Karakatsanis JJ.:  In applying the doctrine of issue estoppel where the prior criminal proceeding was before a jury, the question is whether a finding in favour of the accused is logically necessary to the verdict of acquittal.  Factors such as questions asked by the jury, the timing of the jury’s verdict or findings made by the sentencing judge under s. 724(2)(b) of the Criminal Code can be used only to reinforce a conclusion reached through reasoning based on logical necessity.  Where, in light of the record and the parties’ allegations, there is more than one logical explanation for the jury’s verdict, and if one of these explanations does not depend on the jury’s resolving the relevant issue in favour of the accused, the verdict cannot successfully be relied on in support of issue estoppel.


                   Here, the transcript of the jury trial reveals that there are at least two logical explanations for the not guilty verdict on each of the criminal organization counts:  either the Crown had not proven that the Hells Angels was a criminal organization or it had not proven that the predicate offences were committed for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with the Hells Angels.  A finding that the Hells Angels was not a criminal organization was not logically necessary to the acquittal.


                   Per Fish J.:  Subject to leaving open the question whether a factual finding made by a sentencing court pursuant to s. 724(2)(b) of the Criminal Code can, as a matter of principle, give rise to an issue estoppel, the majority reasons are agreed with.  There is no principled reason to suggest that such a finding of fact could never estop the Crown from relitigating the issue in subsequent proceedings.  Here, however, the accused have not satisfied the preconditions to issue estoppel.

Jim O'Neil, LL.B.

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