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U.S. Supreme Court
BENTON v. MARYLAND, 395 U.S. 784 (1969)

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom MR. JUSTICE STEWART joins, dissenting.

One of the bedrock rules that has governed, and should continue to govern, the adjudicative processes of this Court is that the decision of constitutional questions in the disposition of cases should be avoided whenever fairly possible. Today the Court turns its back on that sound principle by refusing, for the flimsiest of reasons, to apply the "concurrent sentence doctrine" so as not to be required to decide the far-reaching question whether the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment is "incorporated" into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth, thereby making the former applicable lock, stock, and barrel to the States. Indeed, it is quite manifest that the Court has actually been at pains to "reach out" to decide that very important constitutional issue.

I consider that the concurrent sentence doctrine is applicable here, and that dismissal of the writ is accordingly called for. Despite that, I feel constrained also to express my views on the merits because of what I conceive to be the importance of the constitutional approach at stake.

  1. The Court decides, and I agree, that petitioner's larceny conviction is not moot, and that the concurrent sentence doctrine is not a jurisdictional bar to entertainment of challenges to multiple convictions, so long as the convictions sought to be reviewed are not moot. However, I would also emphasize, in agreement with the position of the Government as amicus curiae, that the concurrent sentence rule does have continuing vitality as an element of judicial discretion, and that appellate courts may decline to review a conviction carrying a concurrent sentence when another "concurrent" conviction Page 802 has been reviewed and found valid and the unreviewed conviction foreseeably will have no significant adverse consequences for the appellant. As the Solicitor General has pointed out, the concurrent sentence doctrine plays a significant role in conserving the time and energy of appellate courts.[fn1] To require that these already overworked courts[fn2] invariably review in full detail each of several convictions carrying concurrent sentences seems to me senselessly doctrinaire.[fn3]
    1. As has been noted, the concurrent sentence doctrine is applicable only if there exists a valid concurrent conviction. In this instance, petitioner's double jeopardy argument is directed to his larceny conviction, but he claims that the concurrent sentence doctrine is no impediment to reaching that question because his concurrent, and otherwise valid, burglary conviction was tainted by having been tried together with the larceny count. It is therefore necessary to consider whether this claim of taint has merit.

      The Court finds that resolution of the taint issue is likely to involve such difficult points of Maryland law as to make a remand to the Maryland courts the soundest course. See ante, at 797-798. However, my examination Page 803 of the question convinces me that the pertinent Maryland law is quite elementary. And, unlike the Court, I am not deterred by the prospect of having to "examine . . . in detail," ante, at 798, the 42-page record of petitioner's second trial.

      I conclude that there was no real possibility of taint. Burglary in Maryland consists of breaking and entering any dwelling house in the nighttime with intent to steal, take, or carry away the personal goods of another. See Md. Code Ann., Art. 27, § 30(a) (1967). Larceny in Maryland is a common-law crime, consisting of the taking and carrying away of the personal property of another with intent to deprive the owner of the property permanently. See, e. g., Fletcher v. State, 231 Md. 190, 189 A.2d 641 (1963). Evidence was introduced at petitioner's second trial to show that he not only entered a locked house at night but also made off with several household appliances. The latter evidence was, of course, pertinent to the larceny count. However, it was also plainly relevant to the burglary count, since it tended to show intent to steal.

      Petitioner bases his taint argument primarily on the proposition that he was entitled to have the evidence concerning the missing appliances excluded from his second trial under the doctrine of "collateral estoppel," he having been acquitted of larceny at the first trial. However, even if it is assumed that the conviction on the larceny count was bad on double jeopardy or due process grounds and that the principle of collateral estoppel has some application to state criminal trials through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,[fn4] I think that the doctrine would not prevent Page 804 admission of the evidence on the issue of burglary. The principle of collateral estoppel makes conclusive, in collateral proceedings, only those matters which were "actually litigated and determined in the original action. . . ." Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 353 (1877).[fn5] The Maryland Constitution provides:

      "In the trial of all criminal cases, the Jury shall be the Judges of Law, as well as of fact, except that the Court may pass upon the sufficiency of the evidence to sustain a conviction." Md. Const., Art. 15, § 5.

      Hence, petitioner's acquittal of larceny at his first trial may have rested solely upon that jury's unique view of the law concerning that offense, and cannot be taken as having necessarily "determined" any particular question of fact.

      It follows from what has been said in this section that there can be no estoppel effect in a collateral proceeding, such as petitioner's second trial for burglary, and that petitioner's taint argument must fail.[fn6] Page 805
    2. Since petitioner's second burglary conviction was not tainted by his simultaneous trial for larceny, it is necessary to consider whether the concurrent sentence doctrine is inapplicable for the other possible reason: that petitioner foreseeably will suffer significant adverse consequences on account of his larceny conviction.[fn7]

      No such consequences can reasonably be predicted. The Court itself notes that only a "few States" would allow petitioner's larceny conviction to be used against him for purposes of sentencing as a habitual offender, and concedes that "this possibility may well be a remote one." Ante, at 790-791. When it is recalled that petitioner had been convicted of three felonies even prior to his present burglary conviction,[fn8] this possibility is reduced to the vanishing point.[fn9]

      There remain the possibilities that petitioner's larceny conviction might be considered generally by a judge if and when petitioner is sentenced following some future conviction, and that the conviction might be used to impeach him in future judicial proceedings. In the circumstances of this case, these potential consequences are plainly insignificant. Petitioner's burglary and larceny convictions were based upon the very same series of acts on his part. This fact could readily be brought to the attention either of a sentencing judge or of a trier of fact before whom petitioner was sought to be impeached. Predictably, knowledge of the identical origin of the two convictions would reduce the extra impact of the Page 806 larceny conviction to negligible proportions. Thus, it would be difficult to imagine a case in which a "concurrent" conviction would be likely to entail fewer adverse consequences.
    3. The Court nonetheless holds that "because of the special circumstances in this case" it will not apply the concurrent sentence doctrine, and that it is unnecessary even to decide whether the doctrine has "continuing validity, even as a rule of convenience." See ante, at 792. One of the "special circumstances" cited by the Court is the existence of the "taint" issue, which the Court finds it desirable to remand to the state courts. As has been noted, I can perceive no difficulties which would justify a remand.

      The second of the "special circumstances" relied on by the Court is that "in this case the [state courts] decided not to apply the concurrent sentence rule" and reached the "double jeopardy" issue themselves. See ante, at 792. The Court concludes that "[s]ince [the Maryland courts] decided this federal constitutional question, we see no reason why we should not do so as well." See ante, at 792-793. This reasoning baffles me. In determining whether or not to reach a constitutional issue the decision of which is not absolutely necessary to the disposition of a case, this Court has long been guided by the rule that "[w]here a case . . . can be decided without reference to questions arising under the Federal Constitution, that course is usually pursued and is not departed from without important reasons." Siler v. Louisville & N. R. Co., 213 U.S. 175, 193 (1909); see Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 345 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). In deciding whether such "important reasons" exist, this Court has never regarded itself as bound to reach the constitutional issue merely because the court below did so, and has often declined to pass Page 807 upon constitutional questions even though fully canvassed by the lower court.[fn10] On some of these occasions, the Court has relied in justification upon the concurrent sentence doctrine.[fn11]

      Since I cannot believe that the Court wishes as a general matter to abandon the salutary and well-established principle of declining to rule on constitutional questions in advance of necessity, and since I find the "taint" issue entirely free of the complexities which the Court claims to perceive, I cannot help but conclude that the real reason for reaching the "double jeopardy" issue in this case is the Court's eagerness to see that provision "incorporated" into the Fourteenth Amendment and thus made applicable against the States.
    4. As has been shown, this case satisfies both preconditions to application of the concurrent sentence doctrine. Reliance upon that doctrine would enable the Court to avoid decision of a substantial constitutional question. Accordingly, I would apply the concurrent sentence rule and decline to review petitioner's larceny conviction. Since the case was brought here on a writ of certiorari limited to the "double jeopardy" question, decision of which would affect only the larceny conviction, I would dismiss the writ as improvidently granted.