Opinion Analysis: Finding no probable cause to apprehend and a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment, CAAF reverses the convictions in United States v. Darnall, No. 16-0729/NA
CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Darnall, 76 M.J. 326, No. 16-0729/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Concluding that military criminal investigators did not have probable cause to apprehend Darnall, CAAF finds that the fruits of his subsequent interrogation should have been suppressed by the military judge. The findings and sentence are set aside, and the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA is reversed, with a rehearing authorized.
Judge Sparks writes for a unanimous court.
Hospitalman (E-3) Darnall was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of various offenses related to the importation, manufacture, and distribution of controlled substances (steroids and designer drugs). He was sentenced to confinement for six years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge. The convening authority suspended one year of the confinement but otherwise approved the findings and sentence.
CAAF granted review to determine:
Whether the military judge erred in failing to suppress evidence directly flowing from the illegal apprehension of Appellant, whether the NMCCA ruling upholding this decision conflated reasonable suspicion with probable cause, and whether this decision should be reversed.
Darnall became a suspect when a U.S. Mail package containing dimethylone (a controlled substance analogue) was intercepted. The package was addressed to someone with Darnall’s name at an address in the town of Twentynine Palms, California, (the location of a large Marine Corps base where Darnall was stationed). Based on the address, Agent Pledger of the Marine Criminal Investigative Division (CID) suspected that the intended recipient of the package might be a servicemember, and he arranged “to have a counterfeit version of the package containing no real drugs delivered to Appellant at the regimental mailroom and to apprehend him after he picked it up.” Slip op. at 3. This occurred, and Darnall was apprehended (arrested), handcuffed, and interrogated, leading to the discovery of much incriminating evidence.
Darnall moved to suppress the evidence at trial on the basis that the apprehension was without probable cause. The military judge denied the motion and the the Navy-Marine Corps CCA affirmed. The CCA found that the military judge wrongly determined that Darnall previously lived at the residential address on the package, but the CCA concluded that even without this information there was probable cause to apprehend Darnall.
CAAF reverses. Judge Sparks finds that the CCA “provided minimal analysis” in its opinion and “unlike the lower court, we do not conclude that the facts . . . provide sufficient evidence to establish probable cause to apprehend.” Slip op. at 7. Rather, CAAF concludes that Agent Pledger’s actions were not “objectively reasonable law enforcement activity,” but instead was a “somewhat sloppy and apathetic investigation” leading to an apprehension “in clear violation of [Darnall’s] Fourth Amendment rights.” Slip op. at 10.