CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Wilson, 76 M.J. 4, No. 16-0267/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Friday, January 13, 2017. Considering an issue raised personally by the appellant, CAAF concludes that a fenced motor pool is not a structure for the purposes of housebreaking in violation of Article 130, 10 U.S.C. § 930. Accordingly, the appellant’s housebreaking conviction is factually insufficient and CAAF reverses the conviction and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

Specialist (E-4) Wilson and an accomplice entered the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion motor pool at Fort Benning, Georgia, intending to steal batteries. They were caught. Wilson pleaded guilty to larceny in violation of Article 121 (for prior thefts) but he contested a charge of housebreaking of the motor pool in violation of Article 130.

The offense of housebreaking requires unlawful entry into a building or structure. The motor pool at issue, however, “is a concrete lot completely surrounded by a fence. . . used for the storage and maintenance of military property, including vehicles.” Slip op. at 3. The motor pool contains sotrage buildings, but Wilson did not enter any building “nor did he cut any locks, open any doors, or climb through the windows of any building.” Slip op. at 3.

At trial Wilson moved for a finding of not guilty arguing that the motor pool did not qualify as a structure under Article 130. The military judge denied the motion. Wilson renewed his argument on appeal but it was rejected by the Army CCA. CAAF then granted review of a single issue:

Whether the military judge erred in denying the defense motion for appropriate relief under Rule for Court-Martial 917 where the military judge improperly applied Article 130, housebreaking, to a motor pool.

CAAF finds that the military judge did err.

Judge Ryan explains that:

Both the commonsense meaning of “structure” within a housebreaking offense and the limiting language of the [Manual for Courts-Martial] leave us with no doubt that an open-air fenced area like the 3rd BTSB motor pool does not fall within the scope of Article 130, UCMJ, because it is not a structure in the nature of a building or dwelling.

Slip op. at 4.

Considering the dictionary definition of the term structure along with the explanation promulgated by the President in Part IV of the Manual for Courts-Martial, Judge Ryan rejects the notion that a structure under Article 130 is “anything and everything that is composed of parts ‘purposefully joined together.'” Slip op. at 5. She specifically considers the assembly of LEGO bricks into a TIE Fighter as an example of purposefully joined together parts that isn’t a structure, explaining in a footnote that:

LEGO is a line of plastic construction toys manufactured by The Lego Group, a privately held company based in Denmark. LEGO sells sets of interlocking plastic bricks that are combined to create a range of miniature constructions. LEGO frequently releases such sets with licensed themes from the science-fantasy franchise Star Wars. One example of such a product is a recreation of the TIE Fighter, a small Imperial fighter powered by twin ion engines without life support or hyperdrive capabilities. See LEGO Shop, TIE Fighter, (last visited Jan. 10, 2017).

Slip op. at 4-5 n.1.


the meaning of a “structure” for the purposes of Article 130, UCMJ, is a more or less permanent constructed edifice, built up of parts purposefully joined together, more or less completely enclosed by walls and covering a space of land, or a building or construction intended to be or used for residence.

Slip op. at 6.

The motor pool at issue in this case “does not fit within this description, even if the [buildings] within it would.” Slip op. at 6. In particular, Judge Ryan highlights that “the mere presence of a fence cannot transform an outdoor area into a structure in the nature of either a building or a dwelling.” Slip op. at 7.

Accordingly Wilson’s conviction for housebreaking is legally insufficient and is set aside.

Case Links:
ACCA opinion
Appellant’s brief
Appellee’s (Government) brief
Blog post: Argument preview
• Oral argument audio
CAAF opinion
Blog post: Opinion analysis

30 Responses to “Opinion Analysis: A fenced motor pool is not a structure in United States v. Wilson, No. 16-0267/AR”

  1. Vulture says:

    Explained to me like I was a two year old.  Why to go Judge Ryan!

  2. Westpointquaker says:

    Legos, twin ion engines, hyperdrive capabilities.  Really?  Shades of Judge Baker in US v. Townsend, 65 MJ 460 (CAAF 2008) (“As with the trees at Dolly Sods, the wind only blows in one direction.”).  This should have been a two page per curiam opinion stating simply that under the President’s MCM definition, a fenced motor pool is not a structure for Art 130 housebreaking purposes.  Got it.  No need to repeat yourself. 

  3. Vulture says:

    WPQ see:  Justice Kagan sets a high bar.

  4. John Galt says:

    Glad it’s so clear to you. They reversed a cca.  Have some respect

  5. Tami a/k/a Princess Leia says:

    This was a no-brainer.  Kudos to Judge Ryan for the Star Wars references!

  6. John O'Connor says:

    As a proud former 3502, I agree with Judge Ryan’s analysis. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how this came out the other way at trial and at the CCA. 

  7. Leathuhneckin' says:

    It’s the army…what do you expect?  I’m surprised they spelled “housebreaking” correctly…

  8. stewie says:

    Vader’s TIE had FTL and life support.

  9. J.M. says:

    Vaders TIE was a prototype and the Judge simply says ‘TIE Fighter’, and links to the basic TIE Fighter, without hyperdrive or life support. With that out of the way, question from a layperson. Why even charge housebreaking? There appears to be more than enough evidence to convict the defendants on other charges. Was the housebreaking charge simply to scare them or send a message that stealing from the motor pool will get you hammered? If so, mission accomplished. Everyone will remember that snuffy was convicted for housebreaking when he stole from the motor pool. The rank and file won’t notice, or care, that it was tossed on appeal. Or was this simply a ‘throw everything at him and see what sticks’ situation?

  10. J.M. says:

    Stewie, FTL, is Battlestar Galactica terminology, It’s called Hyperdrive in Star Wars. And Stargate used both terms to describe two different types of drives. I’d expect a lawyer to understand the importance of proper terminology.  :)

  11. Ship to Ship says:

    Vader’s TIE is a “TIE Advanced”.

  12. Zachary D Spilman says:

     question from a layperson. Why even charge housebreaking?

    Shows restraint, J.M. After all, they didn’t charge attempted larceny and conspiracy. 

  13. westpointquaker says:

    Let’s not blame the Army CCA or the trial judge for this one.  Under Wickersham, 14 MJ 404, COMA broadened the definition of structure to include a fenced-in storage area.  The trial judge and the CCA were just following past precedent.  It is not the CCA’s business to reverse CAAF.  In fact, the Army appellate defense counsel didn’t even raise this issue at CAAF, probably because he thought the matter settled law.  The issue was personally raised by appellant.  CAAF overruled itself and Wickersham, and it narrowed the definition of structure.  That is CAAF’s call, not the CCA’s call.    

  14. Zachary D Spilman says:

    It is not the CCA’s business to reverse CAAF.

    But see United States v. Davis, No. 16-0306/AR (CAAFlog case page) (Issue: “Whether the Army Court of Criminal Appeals erred in refusing to apply de novo review for failure to instruct on an affirmative defense raised by the evidence, and instead found forfeiture and applied a plain error analysis, contrary to this court’s precedents in United States v. Taylor, 26 M.J. 127 (C.M.A. 1988); United States v. Davis, 53 M.J. 202 (C.A.A.F. 2000); and United States v. Stanley, 71 M.J. 60 (C.A.A.F. 2012)).

    A cynic would, however, emphasize that the reversal of precedent in Davis favored the Government…

  15. the hot chick says:

    This opinion was very informative.  Now that I know a Lego Tie Fighter is not a structure requiring a separate search warrant, I’ll stop advising my clients to put their weed in there.
    I agree with the Amish guy from West Point that the trial judge and the CCA should not be blamed.  Add the TC to that list. 
    And, the New Order’s Tie Fighter that Finn and Poe escaped in had life support and presumably a hyperdrive which is why Finn told Poe to get them out of the system instead of going back to Jakku, but only a the true hot Fan Chick would know such a thing.

  16. Vulture says:

    Considering that this ruling was based on an issue raised by the Appellant: Grostefon proceeds from two principles 1) the Appellant may raise any issue no matter how small (US v. Grostefon, 12 MJ 431) and 2) it exists out of concern for possible UCI (United States v. Healy, 26 M.J. 394, 397)
    3BSTB is a part of a maneuver brigade in a maneuver division, ie 3ID.  Though the brigades have a separate HCC on the MTOE, the Commander usually TO’s them under the BSTB.  If this brigade commander saw that some jack assery was going on by his Bradley, he may have pushed for this charge.  SJA and BJA went along and figured this for icing on the cake.  Charging isn’t supposed to work that way, in fact it is UCI.
    Not to say that is the way it went down, but I’ve seen the question come up before when a Commander drives for prosecution by a subordinate commander.  But Judge Ryan’s opinion seems fine for the subject under review.

  17. Ship to ship says:

    The TIE that Poe jacked was a special forces TIE. It has a hyperdrive and two seats, which is convenient for moving plots along.

  18. stewie says:

    Actually JM FTL is just an abbreviation for Faster Than Light, it’s not a BSG creation, and hyperdrive, warp, wormholes, slipstream, transwarp, and infinite probability drives all qualify even if some of the ship’s themselves don’t actually move faster than light (actually literally none of them do, they all either use a different kind of space, warp space, or use a wormhole connection that doesn’t require the ship itself to move FTL thus not violating relativity).
    and as thc (not to be confused with marijuana?) rightfully points out, now we have to consider whether we are talking about original trilogy TIEs or New Order TIEs, or other TIEs from the SW continuity that did have either life support and/or Hyperdrives.
    I think appellate defense needs to ask for reconsideration, this TIE thing could blow the entire decision up wider than Alderaan.
    (too soon?).

  19. David Bargatze says:

    Whatever imprecision there was in her reference to a “TIE Fighter,” Judge Ryan’s link clarified the matter. She was referring to the TIE/Ln variant, which did lack hyperdrive and life support. An assembled copy of the specific LEGO non-structure she cited currently sits atop the filing cabinet in my office, and this opinion means it is going on the pro gear list for my next PCS shipment.

  20. stewie says:

    So does a TIE fighter WITH hyperdrive and life support count as a structure?
    What about a Federation Starship? A Klingon Bird of Prey? A shuttlepod?

  21. Vulture says:

    Stewie, did you just reference Princess Rap Battles?  The similar knowledge basis is scary.

  22. Tom Booker says:

    Admittedly I am no military justice expert, but I’ll try to answer JM’s question about why even charge housebreaking.  The answer can be traced, in part, to the inroads CAAF has made (justifiably, from an elements standpoint) on Article 134 offenses.  The charging authorities probably knew that an Article 134 unlawful entry would not lie as a lesser included offense to burglary (never mind that this was not a “dwelling place”), so they split the difference and came up with the Article 130 housebreaking.  Housebreaking, like burglary, requires an intent to commit an offense within the structure (it’s interesting how the statutes describe the offenses, though; burglary is mostly like common-law burglary, requiring an intent to commit a felony with its citations to Article 118 through 128; housebreaking requires an intent to commit a criminal offense, so arguably breaking into a warehouse to smoke dope qualifies).
    For my money, the Article 134 unlawful entry would have correctly described what the accused did, would have avoided the “intent” element of housebreaking, and would have obviated the appellate litigation.  One comforting thing to take from all this is that CAAF still considers Grostefon issues as meritorious.
    Vulture, thank you for the reference to the Spiderman case.  While Justice Kagan’s lead opinion might have been too cute at points, it was a useful reminder that parties’ ability to contract can be limited by federal patent law.
    Respectfully, Tom Booker

  23. Aaron Rodgers says:

    So, when I broke out a celebratory Pepsi after hitting Jared Cook with a 35 yard pass to set up the winning field goal with 3 seconds left against the Cowboys, I thought to myself, “I wonder if this is how the TDS attorney at Ft. Benning who represented Wilson felt when C.A.A.F. agreed with him that a motor pool isn’t a structure?” 

  24. stewie says:

    I did not quote Princess Rap Battles, whatever that is. But I’m going to assume it involved an actress pretending to be Princess Leia against another actress pretending to be some other fictional princess in a…rap…battle.

  25. Vulture says:

    Either that or the force is really, really with you.

  26. Matt says:

    Stewie, it’s not too soon for Alderaan jokes.  My understanding is that it happened long ago…

  27. stewie says:

    I didn’t want to offend any Alderaanians? Alderaanites? San Diegoans?

  28. Big Jock says:


  29. J.M. says:

    David, Legos should always be considered pro gear for PCS moves. They are an invaluable tool for rock drill and sand table exercises. The challenge is getting the LTs to give them back to you when it’s over. 

  30. Neutron73 says:

    I love it!  Great way to put science fiction/popular culture into a published opinion.
    I would wager that the judges had a bet going to see who could put a Star Wars or Lego reference into an opinion.
    Totally agree with Judge Ryan’s opinion;  Breaking a fence is “housebreaking?”  Give me a break (no pun intended). This should’ve been blown away at trial, not sent all the way up to CAAF to give us a wonderful Star Wars reference.