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Law School Case Brief

Dowling v. United States - 493 U.S. 342, 110 S. Ct. 668 (1990)


Beyond the specific guarantees enumerated in the Bill of Rights, the Due Process Clause has limited operation. The United States Supreme Court has defined the category of infractions that violate "fundamental fairness" very narrowly. Judges are not free, in defining "due process," to impose on law enforcement officials their personal and private notions of fairness and to disregard the limits that bind judges in their judicial function. They are to determine only whether the action complained of violates those fundamental conceptions of justice which lie at the base of our civil and political institutions, and which define the community's sense of fair play and decency. 


Petitioner Dowling was convicted of robbing a Virgin Islands bank while wearing a ski mask and carrying a small pistol. Relying on Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b) -- which provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts may be admissible against a defendant for purposes other than character evidence -- the Government introduced at trial the testimony of one Henry, who stated that a similarly masked and armed Dowling had been one of two intruders who had entered her home two weeks after the bank robbery. Although Dowling had been acquitted of charges in the Henry case, the Government believed that Henry's description of him strengthened its identification of him as the bank robber and that her testimony linked him to another individual thought to be implicated in the bank robbery. The District Court permitted the introduction of the testimony and twice instructed the jury about Dowling's acquittal and the limited purpose for which the testimony was being admitted. The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, ruling that, although the Government was collaterally estopped by the acquittal from offering Henry's testimony at trial and the testimony was inadmissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, its admission was harmless because it was highly probable that the error did not prejudice Dowling. The Court of Appeals declined to apply the more stringent standard of Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18, 24, applicable to constitutional errors because the District Court's error was evidentiary and not of constitutional dimension. Petitioner Dowling sought review.


Did the admission of testimony from a previous trial for an alleged crime that resulted in acquittal violate criminal defendant's Dowling’s constitutional rights in the present trial?




On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of conviction and held that neither the Double Jeopardy nor the Due Process Clause barred the use of Henry's testimony at petitioner Dowling's bank robbery trial. The Court found that the appellate court incorrectly held that the doctrine of collateral estoppel barred the later use of evidence relating to conduct that the government failed to prove violated a criminal law. However, the Court found that the appellate court correctly decided that the admission of the testimony did not constitute reversible error. The Double Jeopardy Clause did not bar the testimony because the issue of identity was not at issue and was not decided in Dowling’s favor at the prior trial. The Court held that the testimony did not violate the due process test of fundamental fairness because the evidence was valuable in proving Dowling’s guilt, and the trial court gave limiting instructions to the jury.

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