Supreme Judicial Court (May 8, 2008)

The Commonwealth is not collaterally estopped from relitigating a suppression issue after the issue has been resolved against it in an earlier proceeding against a different defendant.

The defendant, Stephens, and a codefendant were charged with drug offenses as a result of evidence seized and statements made during a motor vehicle stop. The defendant, Stephens, was indicted as a subsequent offender for distributing cocaine, and his case proceeded to the Superior Court, while his codefendant's case remained in the District Court.

In the District Court, the codefendant moved to suppress the physical evidence and his statements as products of a warrantless search and seizure; his motion was allowed. The Commonwealth subsequently dismissed the charges against him for lack of evidence.

The defendant, Stephens, moved in the Superior Court to suppress the same evidence, as well as his statements made during the search. Several weeks after the codefendant's motion was allowed in the district court, the judge in the Superior Court denied Stephens's motion to suppress, concluding that the police officers had reasonable suspicion to stop Stephens and probable cause to search his vehicle.

Stephens subsequently learned of the result in the district court case and moved for reconsideration of the denial of his motion to suppress, claiming that the Commonwealth was collaterally estopped from relitigating the propriety of the search because the issue had been resolved against it in the District Court. The Superior Court judge denied his motion, concluding that "mutuality of the parties must exist in the criminal context" and there was no mutuality here because "the defendant himself" was not a party in the District Court case. Stephens was tried and convicted of distributing cocaine, and was convicted as a subsequent offender. He appealed, and the Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case on its own motion.

The doctrine of collateral estoppel provides 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." Commonwealth v. Lopez, 383 Mass. 497, 499 (1981), quoting Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436, 443 (1970).

The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the ruling of the Superior Court, noting that, "for the same reasons we have concluded that inconsistent verdicts, while "intellectually discomforting," must be tolerated to effectuate the societal interest "in securing just and accurate results in the criminal law," Commonwealth v. Cerveny, 387 Mass 280 (1982), there is no sound policy reason why the Commonwealth should be precluded from seeking to enforce the criminal laws against a defendant where, for whatever reason, a codefendant has prevailed on a motion to suppress.