Argument Preview: What’s the minimum mens rea to be guilty of sexual assault by causing sexual assault, in United States v. McDonald
CAAF will hear oral argument in the Army case of United States v. McDonald, No. 18-0308/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, February 19, 2019, at 9:30 a.m. The court granted review of the following issue about the minimum mens rea (mental state) necessary to commit the offense of sexual assault by causing bodily harm where the bodily harm is a nonconsensual sexual act:
Whether the military judge erred in instructing the panel that a negligent mens rea was sufficient to make otherwise lawful conduct criminal.
Mens rea was the #8 Military Justice Story of 2017 because of a series of CAAF decisions involving the mental state required to violate the UCMJ. McDonald (and a second case presenting substantially the same issue) involves Article 120(b)(1)(B) (2012), which prohibited sexual assault by causing bodily harm, and the definition of bodily harm included a nonconsensual sexual act or sexual contact. Put differently, since nonconsensual sexual activity is generally considered to be the definition of sexual assault, the statute functionally prohibited sexual assault by causing sexual assault. Congress repealed that offense in Section 5430 of the Military Justice Act of 2016 (that became effective on January 1, 2019), but it replaced it with a new-but-similar Article 120(b)(2)(A) that prohibits “commit[ting] a sexual act upon another person without the consent of the other person.”
In neither offense, however, did Congress identify a specific mens rea. Put differently, Congress didn’t say whether – to be guilty of the offense – an accused must actually know that the other person didn’t consent (actual knowledge), or recklessly disregard evidence of lack or consent (recklessness), or just fail to discover that the other person didn’t consent (negligence). Congress also could have said (but didn’t say) that the accused’s knowledge doesn’t matter at all (strict liability). Accordingly, the mens rea applicable to the offense is an open question.
CAAF granted review in McDonald back in September (noted here), and since then two CCAs have issued decisions addressing the issue. First, in United States v. Patrick, __ M.J. __ (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Dec. 11, 2018) (link to slip op.), the NMCCA held that the applicable mens rea is found in the definition of sexual act which required (under the facts of that case) an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, or degrade. A month later, in United States v. Peebles, __ M.J. __, No. 20170044 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 10, 2019) (link to slip op.), the Army CCA rejected the NMCCA’s reasoning and held that “recklessness is the mens rea applicable to the element of non-consent in Article 120(b)(l)(B), where the bodily harm is alleged to be the sexual act itself.”
The facts of McDonald, however, present the possibility that CAAF won’t immediately resolve the split between the Army and Navy-Marine Corps CCA.