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People v Trakhtenberg and the use of Collateral Estoppel by Prosecutors

Posted on Monday, May 14, 2018

In a recent opinion, the Michigan Supreme Court in People v Trakhtenberg, __ Mich __; __ NW2d __ (2012)(Docket No 143386) addressed a very narrow issue (among many larger issues) - the use of collateral estoppel by the prosecution to prevent a criminal defendant from challenging his trial counsel’s effectiveness. Defendant Trakhtenberg, after being convicted by the trial court and losing his direct appeal, filed a civil lawsuit alleging legal malpractice. This was summarily disposed of, by motion, and his appeal denied. In his criminal case, Defendant Trakhtenberg had filed a motion for relief from judgment which was denied by both the Trial Court and the Court of Appeals. However, the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction while remanding back to the COA to remand to the Trial Court for a Ginther hearing. Based on this hearing, the Trial Court ruled that Defendant’s counsel was ineffective and ordered a new trial, however, the COA reversed. The Supreme Court granted leave. The Supreme Court distinguished this case from cases like People v Gates, 434 Mich 146 (1990) and Yates v United States, 354 US 298 (1957) by noting first and foremost, it was the prosecution and not the Defendant asserting collateral estoppel “to estop the Court’s full review of defendant’s claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.” Ultimately the Court held that the COA erred when it applied the doctrine of collateral estoppel to Defendant Trakhtenberg’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim because the defendant did not have a “fair and full opportunity to litigate his claim in the malpractice proceeding.” While a narrow holding, this is still a potentially big win for similarly situated defendants.

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