CAAFlog » CAAF Opinions

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Jones, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.) on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Applying the old corroboration rule (that was effective prior to this 2016 change), CAAF unanimously finds that sufficient independent evidence was admitted to corroborate a confession to larceny of military property, even after excluding the statement of a co-conspirator that the Army Government Appellate Division conceded was improperly admitted (and used as corroboration at trial). Because the confession was otherwise corroborated, the erroneous admission of the co-conspirator’s statement is harmless and the findings, sentence, and decision of the Army CCA are affirmed.

Judge Maggs writes for a unanimous court.

CAAF granted review of three issues that focused on the admission of the a co-conspirator’s statement:

I. Whether admission of an alleged co-conspirators confession to law enforcement violated M.R.E. 801(d)(2)(E).

II. Whether admission of the same confession violated Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

III. Whether use of the confession to corroborate otherwise unsupported essential elements in Appellant’s own confession violated M.R.E. 304(g) and United States v. Adams, 74 M.J. 137 (C.A.A.F.).

Chief Warrant Officer (W2) Jones was convicted of two specifications of larceny of military property, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, and was sentenced to confinement for 17 days, a reprimand, and to be dismissed. Jones was acquitted of a single specification of conspiracy to commit the charged larceny offenses.

In late 2013 and early 2014, Jones was a mobilized reservist deployed to Afghanistan where he “served as the officer in charge of his unit’s woodshop.” Slip op. at 3. Jones was convicted stealing tools from the woodshop and mailing them to his home in North Carolina (to use at the high school where he was a teacher in civilian life). Jones confessed those facts to Army investigators. But that confession alone was not enough to convict Jones, because a confession is inadmissible unless it is corroborated by independent evidence. See Mil. R. Evid. 304(c). See also our #10 Military Justice Story of 2015 (Confessions).

There was, however, an accomplice. Master Sergeant Addington participated in the acts, and he also confessed to military investigators. The prosecution offered that confession into evidence as a statement made by a co-conspirator during and in furtherance of the conspiracy. Such statements are not hearsay and are admissible under Mil. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E) (and the equivalent Fed. R. Evid. 801(d)(2)(E)). The defense objected but the military judge admitted Addington’s confession (providing ample corroboration for Jones’ confession) and Jones was convicted.

It’s pretty hard to defend the military judge’s decision to admit Addington’s confession to military investigators as a statement by a co-conspirator made during and in furtherance of the conspiracy, because confessing to the conspiracy is a pretty bad way to further it. Nevertheless, the Army court summarily affirmed Jones’ convictions. But after CAAF granted review, the Army Appellate Government Division conceded that the military judge was wrong to admit Addington’s confession. The Government Division maintained, however, that the military judge’s error was harmless because other evidence admitted at trial provided sufficient corroboration for Jones’ confession.

Today CAAF agreed. Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Maggs explains that: “We conclude that the military judge did not err in admitting Appellant’s statement. We further conclude that the military judge improperly admitted MSG Addington’s statement, but we find that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” Slip op. at 2.

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Today CAAF issued a summary disposition in United States v. Burris, No.17-0605/AR (CAAFlog case page), reversing the Army CCA and remanding for a new Article 66 review:

On further consideration of the granted issue (77 M.J. 138 (C.A.A.F. 2017)), the briefs of the parties, and oral argument, we note that the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that the mere failure to object to evidence and findings argument waives challenges to such evidence and argument and that the Government concedes that the lower court’s reasoning was in error. We agree with the Government that a mere failure to object to the admission of evidence and to findings argument constitutes forfeiture, not waiver. United States v. Andrews, 77 M.J. 393 (C.A.A.F. 2018); United States v. Knapp, 73 M.J. 33, 36 (C.A.A.F. 2014). We further note that the Government has argued for the first time in this Court that Appellant affirmatively waived his challenges to the admission of character evidence and argument. We leave this argument for the lower court to address on remand.

Accordingly, it is, by the Court, this 19th day of July, 2018,

ORDERED:

That the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals is set aside. The record of trial is returned to the Judge Advocate General of the Army for remand to the Court of Criminal Appeals for a new review under Article 66, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 866 (2012).

Disclosure: I represent Major Burris as his civilian appellate defense counsel and I argued this case at CAAF on his behalf.

Case Links:
 ACCA decision
• ACCA decision on reconsideration
 Blog post: CAAF grants
 Appellant’s brief 
 Appellee’s (Army Gov’t App. Div.) brief
 Appellant’s reply brief
• Blog post: Argument preview
• Oral argument audio
• Blog post: CAAF summary decision

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Christensen, __ M.J. __, No. No. 17-0604/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, July 10, 2018. In a narrowly-written opinion, the court distances itself from (but does not overrule) its precedent regarding when a servicemember is discharged from the service and court-martial jurisdiction ends. CAAF concludes that under the specific facts of this case, reason and policy dictate that the appellant was discharged prior to his court-martial and so the tribunal lacked personal jurisdiction to try him. The court reverses the findings and sentence, and the decision of the Army CCA, and dismisses the charges.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Sparks. Judge Maggs writes separately, concurring, joined by Judge Ryan.

CAAF granted review of a single issue:

Whether Appellant was subject to court-martial jurisdiction.

In 2014, Private First Class (E-3) Christensen was convicted by a general court-martial of one specification of sexual assault in violation of Article 120 (2012), and sentenced to confinement for eight years, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge.

A year before the trial – in March 2013 – Christensen was pending administrative separation from the Army and “was arrested by civilian authorities for a suspected sexual assault involving another soldier and he was placed in civilian confinement.” Slip op. at 2. While in that civilian confinement, Christensen’s administrative separation was approved by the separation authority, a sergeant “fully cleared [Christensen] from post,” his military identification card was taken from him, and a noncommissioned officer visited him in April and told him “he was ‘out of the Army now’ and wished him good luck.” Slip op. at 2.

That, however, is not enough to discharge a servicemember from the Armed Forces under CAAF’s precedent. Rather, a servicemember is discharged (and court-martial jurisdiction ends) only after three things happen: “(1) the delivery of a discharge certificate (a DD Form 214); (2) a final accounting of pay; and (3) the completion of the clearing process that is required under service regulations.” Slip op. at 7 (citing United States v. Hart, 66 M.J. 273, 276-79 (C.A.A.F. 2008)).

Christensen was cleared, and a DD-214 was mailed to his home (stating his date of discharge as April 17, 2013), but his final accounting of pay was delayed by the chief of justice (senior prosecutor) at Fort Stewart, GA. That military prosecutor:

acted on his own authority and without coordinating with anyone in command. Further, neither he nor the OSJA contacted Appellant to let him know that they were halting his final pay. At the jurisdiction motions hearing, the chief of justice testified that he wanted to have the ability to exercise military jurisdiction over Appellant until he could “confirm that the civilians were going to prosecute this [sexual assault case] in a way that we felt was appropriate.”

Slip op. at 3-4 (marks in original). Judge Ohlson’s majority opinion also observes that:

Despite the actions of the chief of justice beginning in April 2013, it was not until August or September when the brigade commander formally requested a revocation of Appellant’s DD Form 214. Then on September 26, the Government preferred one charge and specification against Appellant. On September 30, the soldier processing center voided Appellant’s DD Form 214 and revoked his discharge. However, it was not until December that anyone from Appellant’s unit notified him that he was still considered a member of the armed forces and that he was going to be court-martialed.

Slip op. at 5. Thereafter Christensen “had difficulty using many of the facilities that would be readily available to active duty soldiers—such as the dining hall—because he was not on the roster of active duty military personnel. He likewise did not have an identification card, assigned quarters, or any of his own uniforms. Moreover, [Christensen] was not paid from April 2013 until January 2014.” Slip op. at 5-6.

Christensen challenged the existence of jurisdiction at trial and also on appeal at the Army CCA, but the challenge was denied on the basis that “there was no final accounting of pay” (as required under CAAF’s precedent, including Hart), and so there was no valid discharge. Slip op. at 6.

CAAF does not disagree with the conclusion that there was no final accounting of pay, but the majority nevertheless finds no jurisdiction to try Christensen by court-martial in 2014 because “to hold otherwise would clearly go against ‘reason or policy.'” Slip op. at 7 (quoting United States v. Nettles, 74 M.J. 289, 291 (C.A.A.F. 2015) (CAAFlog case page)).

Judge Maggs’ concurring opinion agrees with the majority’s conclusion that there was no jurisdiction, but it “prioritize[s] statutes and regulations over judge-made law.” Con. op. at 3. Seemingly uncomfortable with the majority’s embrace of a reason or policy exception to the three-part test from Hart, Judge Maggs and Judge Ryan would determine the existence of a jurisdiction-ending discharge by first identifying whether a statute or regulation “specifies when a discharge has occurred,” and if one does then “the Court would simply apply that statute or regulation.” Con. op. at 2. And in this case there is such a regulation: Army Regulation 635-200, “which provides, with certain exceptions not relevant here, that a discharge ‘is effective at 2400 on the date of notice of discharge to the Soldier.'” Con. op. at 2 (quoting AR 635-200 at ¶ 1-29.c).

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Armstrong, 77 M.J. 465, No. 17-0556/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, June 28, 2018. The court holds that assault consummated by a battery is not a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm because even though both offenses require bodily harm, a battery must involve unlawful force or violence, while abusive sexual contact need only involve a certain mental state. Nevertheless, reviewing for plain error (because the defense failed to preserve the issue with a timely objection) CAAF finds no material prejudice to the defense in this case and affirms the conviction of assault consummated by a battery and the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Maggs writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Ryan. Judge Ohlson writes a separate concurring opinion, joined by Judge Sparks.

Captain (O-3) Armstrong was charged with abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm in violation of Article 120(d) (incorporating Article 120(b)(1)(B)) (2012). A general court-martial composed of members convicted Armstrong of assault consummated by a battery as a lesser included offense, and sentence him to be dismissed. The Army CCA summarily affirmed the findings and sentence.

The factual basis for the convicton was that the alleged victim (the civilian wife of another officer) reported that she fell asleep on a couch during a party and awoke to Armstrong touching her. The charge sheet alleged that Armstrong:

did . . . commit sexual contact upon [Mrs. G.]., to wit: touching through the clothing the genitalia of the said [Mrs. G.], by causing bodily harm to the said [Mrs. G.], to wit: wedging his hands between her thighs.

Slip op. at 2 (quoting charge sheet) (modifications in original). Sexual contact is a legal term of art that encompasses touching “with an intent to abuse, humiliate, or degrade any person,” or “with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” Article 120(g)(2)(A) and (B).

In advance of trial Armstrong’s defense counsel requested instructions relevant to a possible lesser included offense of assault consummated by a battery, including “a mistake of fact instruction with regard to battery, the lesser included offense.” Slip op. at 3 (marks omitted) (emphasis added). Despite this and other requested instructions referencing battery as a lesser included offense, CAAF finds that:

Defense counsel, however, never expressly agreed that assault consummated by a battery was a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact by causing bodily harm.

Slip op. at 3. But at trial, when it was time to instruct the members, the prosecution requested that they be instructed that they could convict Armstrong of assault consummated by a battery as a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact. The military judge asked Armstrong’s defense counsel for their position, to which the defense responded: “Taking no position on it, judge.” Slip op. at 3 (quoting record).

Bad move. That equivocation is why CAAF now affirms Armstrong’s conviction of assault consummated by a battery despite finding that it is not actually a lesser included offense of abusive sexual contact.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Williams, 77 M.J. 459, No. 17-0285/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. In this Hills trailer case involving the improper use of charged offenses for propensity purposes, CAAF holds that the Army CCA wrongly held that the circumstances involve an exception to Hills. The court reverses convictions of rape and forcible sodomy, affirms other convictions, and authorizes a rehearing.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

In 2013, Sergeant (E-5) Williams was convicted of raping his first wife (Charge I), and forcibly sodomizing and battering his second wife (Charges II and III), by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation. Before trial, the prosecution gave notice of its intent to use the charged sexual offenses against each wife as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged offenses against the other wife; a tactic that was somewhat common in military practice at the time but that CAAF later held to be improper, in United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page).

Williams’ defense counsel filed a motion to preclude the prosecution from using the charged offenses for propensity purposes. “[T]he military judge questioned the ripeness of the issue, signaled that the proper time to address the issue would be when discussing panel instructions, and did not then explicitly rule on the motion.” Slip op. at 4. At trial, however, the defense did not renew its objection, and a different military judge instructed the panel that it could use the charged rapes (Charge I) as evidence of Williams’ propensity to commit the charged forcible sodomy (Charge II), and also that:

You may also consider the evidence of such other acts of sexual assaults for its tendency, if any, to show the accused’s propensity or predisposition to engage in sexual assault.

Slip op. at 5 (quoting record). Williams was convicted. On appeal the Army CCA affirmed the convictions, concluding that “this case is an exception to Hills.” United States v. Williams, No. 20130582, slip op. at 2 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 12, 2017) (link to slip op.). The CCA reasoned:

Charge I is entirely unaffected by Hills. When deliberating on evidence with regards to the Specification of Charge I, the panel was not allowed to consider propensity. Additionally, with regards to the forcible sodomy specifications contained in Charge II, the only propensity evidence the panel was allowed to consider stemmed from a specification that had been independently proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

CCA op. at 2 (emphasis in original). Put differently, the CCA concluded that the propensity instruction only allowed the members to use Charge I to prove Charge II, and since Williams was convicted of Charge I first, the facts of that charge were properly used to prove Charge II.

CAAF wholly rejects the CCA’s reasoning in yesterday’s opinion, with Chief Judge Stucky expressing concern that “this is the third case in which we have had to correct a Court of Criminal Appeals’ judgment on this issue,” slip op. at 1-2, and that “in the wake of Hills, our lower courts have attempted to impermissibly narrow that holding by carving out exceptions that run contrary to an accused’s presumption of innocence,” slip op. at 6.

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CAAF decided the interlocutory Army case of United States v. Hendrix, 77 M.J. 454, No. 18-0133/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Rejecting the military judge’s conclusion that a dismissal of charges (followed shortly by a re-preferral) was a subterfuge to avoid the regulatory (R.C.M. 707) speedy trial right, CAAF finds no speedy trial violation and reverses the military judge’s decision that dismissed the charges with prejudice, affirming the decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

The accused, Private (E-2) Hendrix, was charged on November 29, 2016, with two specifications of sexual assault. The alleged victim declined to participate in any prosecution, and the convening authority dismissed the charges. But then – three days later – the alleged victim changed her mind and the charges were re-preferred one day after that. Hendrix was then arraigned on June 8, 2017; 156 days after the first preferral.

That arraignment exceeded the 120-day deadline in R.C.M. 707. Hendrix moved to dismiss, and the military judge granted the motion and dismissed the specification with prejudice after concluding that the convening authority’s dismissal of the original charges was a subterfuge. But the prosecution appealed and the Army CCA reversed, concluding that the dismissal was not a subterfuge because it was based on the alleged victim’s unwillingness-turned-willingness to participate. CAAF then granted review to determine:

Whether the military judge abused his discretion by dismissing the charge and specifications with prejudice for a violation of R.C.M. 707.

He did, explains Judge Sparks, because “dismissal and repreferral are fully permissible under the provisions of R.C.M. 707.” Slip op. at 5. As for the alleged victim’s vacillating willingness to participate, the court finds that this actually supported the convening authority’s action, because “the fact that the complaining witness changed her mind about testifying dramatically changed the strength of the Government’s case.” Slip op. at 6.

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CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Dinger, 77 M.J. 447, No. 17-0510/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, June 18, 2018. The court holds that a retired member of the armed forces can be sentenced to a punitive discharge, affirming the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA and the adjudged sentence in this case.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) Dinger, USMC (Ret.), pleaded guilty to a number of child exploitation offenses, all of which were committed after Dinger entered retired status following the completion of 20 years of enlisted service in the active component of the Marine Corps. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Dinger to confinement for nine years and a dishonorable discharge, and the convening authority suspended all confinement in excess of 8 years in accordance with a pretrial agreement.

The military judge rejected a trial-stage argument that the sentence could not lawfully include a punitive discharge (because of Dinger’s retired status), and the Navy-Marine Corps CCA again rejected the argument on appeal. CAAF then granted review of a single issue:

10 U.S.C § 6332 states that when a person is placed in a retired status, this “transfer is conclusive for all purposes.” Can a court-martial lawfully sentence a retiree to a punitive discharge?

In yesterday’s opinion Chief Judge Stucky explains that CAAF agrees with the military judge and the NMCCA, overruling precedent insofar as it supports a different outcome.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Hardy, 77 M.J. 438, No. 17-0553/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. A somewhat fractured court concludes that an unconditional plea of guilty waives any issue of unreasonable multiplication of charges (UMC) (a doctrine that addresses uniquely-military factors increasing the potential for prosecutorial overreach). The decision both extends and affirms the reasoning of the Air Force CCA that found waiver in a published decision almost one year ago today (analyzed here).

Judge Maggs writes for the court, joined by Judges Ryan and Sparks. Chief Judge Stucky concurs. Judge Ohlson dissents. This is Judge Maggs’ first opinion of the court.

Captain (O-3) Hardy pleaded guilty to numerous child sex offenses and was sentenced to confinement for 16 years and one day, total forfeitures, and a dismissal. Hardy’s defense counsel did not seek relief from any UMC at trial. A pretrial agreement limited Hardy’s confinement to 12 years. The pretrial agreement did not, however, include a relatively-common term agreeing to waive all waivable motions.

Waiver is the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right, extinguishes an error, and was the basis for the #3 Military Justice Story of 2017. The mere failure to raise an issue, however, is generally forfeiture, not waiver. A forfeited error is reviewed for plain error (where the burden is on the appellant to prove error that is both plain and prejudicial).

In United States v. Gladue, 67 M.J. 311 (C.A.A.F. 2009) (discussed here), CAAF split 3-2 to find that a waive all waivable motions provision waived – rather than merely forfeited – any objection to both multiplicity and unreasonable multiplication of charges. Without such a provision in Hardy’s case, however, Hardy’s appellate defense counsel raised UMC for the first time on appeal. But the Air Force CCA found waiver nonetheless. In a published decision a three-judge panel of the CCA concluded that:

where Appellant both failed to raise unreasonable multiplication of charges at trial and pleaded guilty unconditionally, we find he waived his claim of unreasonable multiplication of charges.

United States v. Hardy, 76 M.J. 732, 739 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017). CAAF then granted review to determine:

Whether the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals erred by holding that Appellant waived, rather than forfeited, his claim of unreasonable multiplication of charges.

In today’s opinion four judges agree that the Air Force court was right and any unreasonable multiplication of charges was waived by Hardy’s unconditional plea and failure to object at trial. But Judge Maggs and the majority reach that result with an analysis that Chief Judge Stucky does not join. Judge Ohlson, in turn, doesn’t reach that result at all, concluding that a waiver must be more explicit than the mere failure to object at trial.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Kelly, 77 M.J. 404, No.17-0559/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. In a short, tightly-written opinion, CAAF holds that a court of criminal appeals does have the power to disapprove a mandatory minimum punitive discharge, reversing the published en banc (but non-unanimous) decision of the Army CCA.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

Disclosure: I represent Sergeant Kelly as his civilian appellate defense counsel and I argued this case at CAAF on his behalf.

Sergeant (E-5) Kelly was convicted of abusive sexual contact and sexual assault, and was sentenced to confinement for one year, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge. The punishment of dishonorable discharge was mandatory under Article 56(b) (as enacted as part of the 2013 changes to the UCMJ; analyzed here).

“On appeal before the ACCA, [Kelly] argued that the mandatory minimum sentence of a punitive discharge was inappropriately severe.” Slip op. at 6. The CCA, however, held that it lacked the authority to grant relief. “[T]he en banc ACCA, in a sharply divided 6-4 vote, affirmed, and did not reach the question of whether Appellant’s sentence ‘should be approved.'” Slip op. at 2-3 (quoting Kelly, 76 M.J. at 807). CAAF then granted review to determine:

Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals has the authority to disapprove a mandatory minimum punitive discharge.

The court later specified a second issue involving improper argument by the trial counsel:

In light of this Court’s decisions in United States v. Sewell, 76 M.J. 14 (C.A.A.F. 2017) [CAAFLog case page] and United States v. Pabelona, 76 M.J. 9 (C.A.A.F. 2017) [CAAFlog case page] did the lower court err when it determined the standard of review was waived when there was no objection to improper argument?

Chief Judge Stucky’s opinion for the unanimous court points to yesterday’s opinion in United States v. Andrews, __ M.J. __ (C.A.A.F. May 22, 2018) (CAAFlog case page), to answer the specified issue, and answers the granted issue in the affirmative and sets aside the judgment of the Army court.

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CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Andrews, 77 M.J. 393, No.17-0480/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Rejecting the Navy-Marine Corps Appellate Government Division’s argument that the failure to object to improper argument at trial waives any error on appeal, CAAF concludes that any improper argument by the prosecution in this particular case was harmless and affirms the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA.

Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.

Quartermaster Seaman Apprentice (E-2) Andrews pleaded guilty to fleeing apprehension, making a false official statement, wrongful use of marijuana, and larceny. But he pleaded not guilty to three sexual offenses. After a contested trial before members, Andrews was convicted of one of those three offenses: sexual assault of a person who was incapable of consenting due to impairment by alcohol.

The prosecution’s closing argument, however, crossed the line, and the Navy-Marine Corps CCA found that the trial counsel committed severe prosecutorial misconduct during that argument. Nevertheless, the CCA concluded that the misconduct did not prejudice Andrews. CAAF then granted review of a single issue questioning that no-prejudice conclusion:

The lower court found severe prosecutorial misconduct. Then it affirmed the findings and sentence, giving its imprimatur to the prosecutorial misconduct in Appellant’s case. Did the lower court err?

Judge Sparks’ opinion for the unanimous CAAF affirms the CCA’s action, but only after a lengthy and unexpected analysis of why the issue was not waived by the failure of Andrews’ defense counsel to object to some of the improper arguments at trial. That analysis is unexpected because the question of whether the failure to object to improper argument waives, rather than merely forfeits, any error was not clearly raised by the granted issue in this case, but rather is clearly raised in a different case still pending before CAAF: United States v. Burris, No.17-0605/AR (CAAFlog case page) (argued – by me for Major Burris – on Thursday, March 22, 2018).

Nevertheless, the Navy-Marine Corps Appellate Government Division asserted waiver in its brief to CAAF and during oral argument (previewed here) (audio here), and CAAF rejects it.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Barker, 77 M.J. 377, No. 17-0551/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, May 21, 2018. Reviewing a written statement from a child pornography victim that was admitted during the sentencing phase of a court-martial under Rule for Courts-Martial 1101A – the President’s implementation of the Article 6b right of an alleged victim to be reasonably heard – CAAF concludes that the statement was not admissible under that rule because the victim did not actually participate in the proceeding (and perhaps didn’t even know about the appellant’s prosecution). Nevertheless, the court concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless because the appellant pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a military judge alone, the defense sentencing case was weak, and the prosecution’s sentencing case was otherwise strong. Accordingly CAAF affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for the court joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky, who dissents (because he would find the issue waived by the pretrial agreement).

Airman First Class (E-3) Barker pleaded guilty, pursuant to a pretrial agreement, to possession and viewing child pornography. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Barker to confinement for 30 months, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge.

During the sentencing phase of the court-martial the prosecution offered an exhibit consisting of three victim-impact letters dated December 2011, January 2013, and September 2013. All of the letters pre-dated Barker’s offenses. The defense made numerous objections to admission of the letters, but the military judge admitted the exhibit in its entirety.

On appeal, the Air Force CCA considered the letters under two different rules: R.C.M. 1001(b)(4), which allows the prosecution to present evidence in aggravation, and R.C.M. 1001A, which implements a crime victim’s Article 6b(a)(4)(B) “right to be reasonably heard at . . . [a] sentencing hearing relating to the offense.” The CCA found (in a published decision analyzed here) that “[w]hile the Prosecution did not indicate whether they were offering the statements under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) or R.C.M. 1001A(e), both the trial defense counsel and the military judge treated the Prosecution’s offer as a victim exercising her right to be reasonably heard under R.C.M. 1001A.” United States v. Barker, 76 M.J. 748, 754 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017). The CCA then found that the December and September statements “lacked any evidence that would have permitted the military judge to determine that they were authentic and, if authentic, relevant to Appellant’s court-martial.” 76 M.J. at 756. The January statement, however, “indicated that it was written by the victim of the ‘Vicky series’ child pornography, one video of which Appellant downloaded.” Id. at 756. Accordingly, the CCA found that the January statement was admissible under R.C.M. 1001A, but the December and September statements were not. Nevertheless, the CCA concluded that the improperly-admitted statements were harmless because “all three statements were from the same victim.” Id. at 757.

CAAF then granted review of two issues challenging the CCA’s conclusion that the January statement was admissible and the improper consideration of the other statements was harmless:

I. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred when it held proper foundation had been laid to admit evidence in aggravation.

II. Whether the Court of Criminal Appeals improperly conducted a review of the prejudice resulting from the military judge’s erroneous admission of evidence in aggravation.

Writing for the majority, Judge Ryan concludes that the January statement was not admissible as a statement of a crime victim under R.C.M. 1001A (and does not address whether it might have been admissible as evidence in aggravation under R.C.M. 1001(b)(4) because that issue was not before the court). But the majority concludes that the erroneous admission of the statement was harmless.

Chief Judge Stucky dissents – even though he agrees with the majority’s conclusions that the statement was improperly admitted under R.C.M. 1001A but was harmless – because he finds that a term of the pretrial agreement served to waive this issue and precludes Barker from raising it on appeal. Accordingly, Chief Judge Stucky would would vacate the grant of review as being improvidently granted.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Eppes, 77 M.J. 339, No. 17-0364/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on April 10, 2018. Resolving challenges to two separate searches, the court unanimously concludes that one search was proper, and a majority find the fruits of the second search technically problematic but ultimately admissible. Accordingly, the appellant’s conditional pleas of guilty and the decision of the Air Force CCA are affirmed.

Judge Sparks writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Ohlson. Judge Ryan writes separately, concurring in part and in the result. Senior Judge Effron dissents in part and would reverse the pleas.

CAAF granted review of two issues:

I. Whether the search of Appellant’s personal bags exceeded the scope of the search authorization where the agent requested authority to search Appellant’s person, personal bags, and automobile, but the military magistrate authorized only the search of Appellant’s person and automobile and did not authorize the search of Appellant’s personal bags.

II. Whether Appellant’s right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment was violated when there was no probable cause for the 7 December 2012 warrant.

Captain (O-3) Eppes conditionally pleaded guilty to various offenses primarily involving travel claim fraud. The conditional pleas preserved his motion to suppress the evidence discovered in two searches: one on December 7, 2012 (of Eppes’ residence; Issue II), and the second on February 5, 2013 (of Eppes’ bags; Issue I). The December search was authorized by a warrant issued by the District of Columbia, while the February search was authorized by a military search authorization.

CAAF unanimously rejects the second issue, with Judge Sparks writing that “the December 7, 2012, search of Appellant’s residence was supported by probable cause and was therefore valid.” Slip op. at 7. Emphasizing that “probable cause is a flexible, commonsense standard,” slip op. at 7 (citation omitted), Judge Sparks explains that the civilian judge who permitted the search “was presented with sufficient facts to reasonably infer evidence of Appellant’s crimes, namely fraud against the government and other offenses, would probably be recovered on a computer in Appellant’s home.” Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted). The entire court, including Judge Ryan and Senior Judge Effron, agrees with that analysis.

But the first issue fractures the court somewhat, with Judge Sparks and the majority applying the inevitable discovery doctrine (while doubting that the exclusionary rule should apply under the circumstances); Judge Ryan finding that even though the search authorization did not explicitly mention Eppes’ bags, the bags were fairly included in the authorization to search Eppes’ person; and Senior Judge Effron finding prejudicial error justifying reversal of the conditional pleas.

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CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Robinson, 77 M.J. 294, No. 17-0231/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, March 26, 2018. One of two cases by the same name (but with different appellants) decided today, CAAF finds any error harmless and a sexual assault conviction legally sufficient, dodging a contentious debate about the reach of the constitutionally-required exception to Mil. R. Evid. 412 (the military’s rape shield rule). The court unanimously affirms the findings, sentence, and decision of the Army CCA.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by all but Senior Judge Effron who concurs in part and in the result.

CAAF granted review of two issues and specified a third:

Granted Issues:
I. Whether the miltiary judge erred by failing to admit constitutionally required evidence under Military Rule of Evidence 412(b)(1)(C).

II. Whether the military judge committed plain error when he failed to instruct the panel on the mens rea required for the specification of Charge 1, which involved an Article 92, UCMJ, violation of Army Regulation 600-20.

Specified Issue:
Whether the evidence was legally sufficient to establish that Appellant knew or reasonably should have known that SPC VM was too intoxicated to consent to a sexual act.

In 2013 Specialist (E-4) Robinson – who was a Sergeant (E-5) at the time – attended a party at the residence of another specialist. Many were in attendance, including junior enlisted soldiers. Among those in attendance was Specialist (SPC) VM, who “was the only female at the party.” Slip op. at 3.

Much alcohol was consumed, and “SPC VM abruptly left the party after she became uncomfortable with another guest’s behavior and drove back to her barracks.” Slip op. at 3. Robinson later went to SPC VM’s barracks room, having “told his wife that he was leaving home to go check on a ‘drunk Soldier’ in the barracks.” Slip op. at 7. While SPC VM testified to little memory of the events in her barracks room, Robinson and VM both testified at trial that sexual intercourse occurred. Robinson, however, testified that the intercourse was consensual. But the military judge applied Mil. R. Evid. 412 to prohibit Robinson from testifying “that SPC VM had flirted with [him] for several months before [the party].” Slip op. at 4. The military judge “concluded that the evidence of SPC VM’s flirting on the night of the party was admissible, but not the evidence of flirting in the months leading up to the party.” Slip op. at 4.

A general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation convicted Robinson of violating a lawful general regulation (fraternization) and sexual assault of a person who was incapable of consenting due to impairment by an intoxicant, in violation of Articles 92 and 120. The members sentenced Robinson to reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a bad-conduct discharge (and no confinement). The Army CCA affirmed in a summary disposition.

CAAF’s grant of the issue questioning whether the military judge’s Mil. R. Evid. 412 ruling was error got attention, including from the victims-rights advocacy group, Protect Our Defenders (POD) which filed an amicus brief asserting that an alleged victim’s privacy interests can override an accused’s right to present constitutionally-required evidence.

But today’s opinion doesn’t address that contentious issue, nor does it address the mens rea required for fraternization in violation of Army Regulation 600-20. Rather, finding the sexual assault conviction legally sufficient (an unsurprising result considering the high burden for reversal on this basis), a majority of CAAF concludes that any error in the military judge’s Mil. R. Evid. 412 ruling and the instructions on the fraternization offense was harmless because the evidence of guilt is overwhelming.

Only Senior Judge Effron would go further, but not much further. He finds that the “wide range of behavior from mild teasing to sexual innuendo” excluded under Mil. R. Evid. 412 “was, at best, marginally relevant to the charged offenses and relevant defenses.” Con. op. at 5-6. Accordingly, while Senior Judge Effron does not agree that the excluded evidence “was so inconsequential that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt,” con. op. at 4, he nevertheless concludes that Robinson has not shown error in its exclusion.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Robinson, 77 M.J. 303, No.17-0504/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, March 26, 2018. One of two cases by the same name (but with different appellants) decided today, in this case a majority of the court finds no constitutional violation in military investigators requesting a device passcode from a suspect who consented to a search of the device after invoking his right to remain silent and requesting an attorney, affirming the published decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Ohlson writes for the court joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky, who dissents.

Last term, in the interlocutory case of United States v. Mitchell, 76 M.J. 413 (C.A.A.F. Aug. 30, 2017) (CAAFlog case page), CAAF held that because continued questioning of a suspect after he invokes his right to counsel violates the Fifth Amendment, the contents of a cell phone must be suppressed when military investigators request the passcode to decrypt the phone after the suspect requests an attorney. The decision was the #4 Military Justice Story of 2017.

Senior Airman (E-4) Robinson was convicted of communicating indecent language to a minor in violation of Article 120b, and sentenced to confinement for one month, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge. The evidence admitted against Robinson included text messages extracted from his cell phone. Those messages were obtained after the investigators asked Robinson for the passcode to the phone. That request, however, came after Robinson informed the investigators that he had an attorney and invoked his right to remain silent.

At trial, Robinson’s defense counsel moved to suppress the text messages on the basis that Robinson’s consent to search and his disclosure of the passcode were both involuntary. The military judge denied the motion and the Air Force CCA affirmed in a published decision (76 M.J. 663) (analyzed here). The CCA also rejected a claim that the search of the device exceeded the scope of the consent, finding that the failure to raise the issue at trial waived it. CAAF then granted review of two issues:

I. Whether the military judge abused his discretion by failing to suppress evidence obtained from Appellant’s cell phone.

II. Whether the Air Force Court erred in holding Appellant waived objections regarding investigators’ exceeding the scope of Appellant’s consent.

In today’s opinion Judge Ohlson and the majority reject application of Mitchell by distinguishing the facts of this case from the facts of Mitchell. Judge Ohlson also explains that waiver applies to the scope issue raised for the first time on appeal based on the wording of the applicable Military Rule of Evidence and CAAF’s precedent interpreting that rule.

Chief Judge Stucky, however, dissents from the court’s resolution of the first issue. The Chief Judge – who authored the court’s opinion in Mitchell – finds this case indistinguishable from Mitchell, and he would not reach the second issue.

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CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Wheeler, 77 M.J. 289, No.17-0456/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Thursday, March 22, 2018. Limiting the preemption doctrine to cases where a federal offense is incorporated under Clause 3 of Article 134 for the purpose of reducing the prosecution’s evidentiary burden at trial, CAAF concludes that the appellant’s conviction of coercion and enticement of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) is not preempted by the enumerated offense of sexual abuse of a child in violation of Article 120b(c) because there is no indication that the federal offense was charged in order to circumvent an element of the Article 120b offense. Accordingly, CAAF affirms the findings, sentence, and published decision of the Air Force CCA.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

Staff Sergeant (E-5) Wheeler was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty “of one specification of attempting to commit a lewd act upon a person he believed to be a child, in violation of Article 80, Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 880 (2012), and one specification of attempting to persuade, induce, or entice a person he believed to be a child to engage in sexual activity through the use of interstate commerce in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) (2012), and charged under clause three of Article 134, UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. § 934 (2012).” Slip op. at 1. He was sentenced to confinement for 30 months, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge.

Wheeler moved to dismiss the Title 18 offense at trial, arguing that it was preempted by Article 120b. The preemption doctrine – the basis for Wheeler’s motion – is a limitation on the use of Article 134 that “prohibits application of Article 134 to conduct covered by Articles 80 to 132.” MCM pt. IV, para. 60.c.(5)(a). The military judge denied the motion, and the Air Force CCA affirmed in a published decision, reasoning in part that the Title 18 offense addresses “a harm that the UCMJ does not specifically address.” United States v. Wheeler, 76 M.J. 564, 572 (A.F. Ct. Crim. App. 2017).

CAAF then granted review to determine:

Whether the lower court erroneously concluded Charge II was not preempted by Article 120b, UCMJ, 10 U.S. C. § 920.

Yesterday’s decision affirms the Air Force CCA’s reasoning with a narrow interpretation of the preemption doctrine.

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