The Kyle Rittenhouse acquittal on all counts is in the news. Acquittal or conviction (on some or all counts) was sure to become a political charged phenomenon. I don’t deal with the political issues here. I respond to a question I was asked yesterday as to whether Rittenhouse’s acquittal absolves him of potential civil liability related to the same conduct for which he was acquitted and specifically address the criminal tax analog of the phenomenon.
For a discussion of the nontax answer, I point readers to this discussion: Euguene Volokh, Could Kyle Rittenhouse Be Sued for Negligence? (The Volokh Conspiracy 11/20/21), here. Professor Volokh answers the question succinctly at the beginning of the blog post:
A criminal acquittal doesn’t preclude a civil lawsuit out of the same claims. First, the acquittal resolves only that guilt couldn’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt (requiring, say, a >90% confidence level); the standard for civil liability is preponderance of the evidence (which requires just >50%, or perhaps ≥50%, if the injury is easily proved and the burden is then shifted to the defendant to prove self-defense).
A similar phenomenon plays out in the criminal tax area. A criminal tax evasion acquittal does not prevent the imposition of the civil fraud penalty in § 6663. And, for the same reason: the burden of proof for the civil fraud penalty is less than for the criminal penalty. so that acquittal is not issue or claim preclusive for the civil fraud penalty. Civil liability for the civil fraud penalty requires that the Government prove civil fraud liability by clear and convincing evidence, a burden that as articulated is less burdensome (so to speak) for the Government than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.
Here is the key paragraph from my Federal Tax Procedure Book (2021 Practitioner Edition), p. 333 here (footnotes omitted from the quote but may be viewed at the link here):
If the taxpayer is acquitted of the tax evasion charge, however, the IRS may still assert the civil fraud penalty (the acquittal is not preclusive that there was no civil fraud). Why? A finding of not guilty is not necessarily a finding of innocence; it is only a finding that the government failed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In an ensuing civil tax case, the government must establish fraud only by clear and convincing evidence, a substantially lesser burden than the beyond a reasonable doubt requirement for criminal conviction. Accordingly, the IRS may and usually does assert the civil fraud penalty when the taxpayer has been acquitted.
Most civil liability exposures relate to liabilities such as negligence discussed above that require proof of liability by a preponderance of the evidence. Liability for the civil fraud penalty requires proof by clear and convincing evidence, a standard that falls somewhere between beyond a reasonable doubt (the criminal conviction standard) and preponderance of the evidence. For discussion of the difficulties in articulating these standards, particularly in jury instructions useful to a jury, see discussion in my book pp. 331-332, here, particularly at n. 1414 and pp.601-602.
This blog post is cross-posted on my Federal Tax Procedure Blog here.