CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Price, 76 M.J. 136, No. 16-0611/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Friday, March 3, 2017. In a short opinion the court concludes that the military judge did not elicit too much information about the appellant’s misconduct during the plea inquiry. CAAF affirms the findings and sentence and the decision of the Air Force CCA

Judge Ohlson writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review to determine:

Whether the military judge abused his discretion by forcing appellant to admit to misconduct greater than was necessary for a provident plea.

Airman First Class (E-3) Price pleaded guilty at a special court-martial composed of a military judge alone to wrongfully using, possessing, and distributing various controlled substances. He was sentenced to confinement for four months, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge.

In order to ensure that a plea of guilty at a court-martial is made voluntarily – and in light of the fact that military service involves all manner of coercion – a military judge must “conduct a detailed inquiry into the offenses charged, the accused’s understanding of the elements of each offense, the accused’s conduct, and the accused’s willingness to plead guilty.” Slip op. at 4 (quoting United States v. Perron, 58 M.J. 78, 82 (C.A.A.F. 2003)) (additional citation omitted) (emphasis in original).

When Price pleaded guilty, however, he offered only a “limited, generic recitation” of the factual basis for his plea (the things that made him guilty). Slip op. at 2. The military judge pressed for additional details over defense objection, eventually eliciting aggravating facts that were not perhaps totally necessary to a sufficient guilty plea.

But CAAF finds no error.

Judge Ohlson explains that:

It is evident from the record that the military judge asked the questions now at issue in order to comply with the requirements of the Rules for Courts-Martial and this Court’s precedent. Specifically, the military judge was seeking additional information from Appellant in order to “satisfy [himself] that there [was] a factual basis for the plea,” R.C.M. 910(e), and to fulfill his “affirmative duty … to conduct a detailed inquiry into … the accused’s conduct.” Perron, 58 M.J. at 82 (emphasis added) (citing Care, 18 C.M.A. 541–42, 40 C.M.R. at 253–54).

But more importantly for the purposes of the instant appeal, it is equally evident from the record that the military judge’s questions did not run afoul of applicable case law regarding the permissible scope of such inquiries. Specifically, the questions were “closely connected” to the offenses to which Appellant was pleading guilty, and they did not “range[] far afield.” Holt, 27 M.J. at 60.3 Consequently, the information elicited from the accused by those questions was admissible during the sentencing phase.

Slip op. at 6. A footnote adds that even if there were error, “in terms of the sentence that was adjudged, we cannot conclude that there was any prejudice. . . . a sentence of four months of confinement, reduction
to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge was anything but harsh.” Slip op. at 6-7 n. 4.

Another footnote adds that an accused – and his detailed military defense counsel – should show some guts if they believe that a military judge’s questions ask too much:

We note, of course, that an accused retains the right to withdraw from a guilty plea in a timely manner if he or she believes a military judge’s questions are objectionable. In the alternative, an accused can resolutely and respectfully decline to answer specific questions posed by a military judge, although this action may cause the military judge to decide not to accept the guilty plea. In the instant case, Appellant did not avail himself of either option.

Slip op. at 6 n.3.

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

2 Responses to “Opinion Analysis: No excess in the military judge’s plea inquiry in United States v. Price, No. 16-0611/AF”

  1. Isaac Kennen says:

    I wonder whether this opinion will lead to “resolute and respectful refusals” to answer questions in future cases?  I think probably not.  
    But, if there are, its going to be interesting to see the government requesting delays to produce witnesses in cases where a plea deal is busted because the accused “respectfully and resolutely refuses” to talk about matters that the government too did not believe were strictly necessary to the plea.  And, in those cases, we will know that the government held such a belief because, as part of the PTA, the government signed a stipulation of fact that it believed contained all necessary facts for a conviction, at least in the eyes of trial counsel (including, potentially a senior trial counsel) and one, if not two, SJAs.

  2. (Former)ArmyTC says:

    Zeke, I don’t disagree with you, but I’ll note that in too many cases counsel won’t sign a stip until after the OTP is accepted. At that point there is no incentive for the accused to admit to aggravation. They already have an OTP and all they need is a minimal stop. It’s why most jurisdictions I’ve practiced in won’t even take an OTP in to the CA without a signed stip (and why I made my TCs write the stip themselves).