CAAFlog » October 2016 Term » United States v. Hukill

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Hukill, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0003/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Tuesday, May 2, 2017. A short opinion reiterates the rationale of United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page) – our #3 Military Justice Story of 2016 – by articulating that “the use of evidence of charged conduct as M.R.E. 413 propensity evidence for other charged conduct in the same case is error, regardless of the forum, the number of victims, or whether the events are connected.” Slip op. at 6. CAAF reverses the decision of the Army CCA that found Hills inapplicable in judge-alone trials, reverses the appellant’s convictions, and authorizes a rehearing.

Chief Judge Erdmann writes for a unanimous court.

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Audio of today’s oral arguments at CAAF is available at the following links:

United States v. Hukill, No. 17-0003/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Feliciano, No. 17-0035/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Army case of United States v. Hukill, No. 17-0003/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, at 9:30 a.m. The court will review the decision of the Army CCA issued in the wake of CAAF’s blockbuster decision in United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page) – our #3 Military Justice Story of 2016 – that functionally held that Hills does not apply in a judge-alone trial because there is no risk that a military judge would apply an impermissibly low standard of proof.

Specialist (E-4) Hukill was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, of rape and abusive sexual contact. Hukill was sentenced to confinement for seven years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge. The two offenses involved separate alleged victims, and the prosecution was allowed to use evidence of each alleged offense as evidence of Hukill’s propensity to commit the other alleged offense. At the time of Hukill’s trial such use was believed to be consistent with Mil. R. Evid. 413. Last June, however, in Hills, a unanimous CAAF concluded that charged offenses may not be used under Mil. R. Evid. 413 to prove an accused’s propensity to commit other charged offenses. But the Army CCA found that because Hukill was tried by a military judge alone, the improper use of the charged offenses for propensity purposes was harmless:

We are satisfied that his view on the admissibility of propensity evidence under Mil. R. Evid. 413 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We find no risk that the military judge would apply an impermissibly low standard of proof concerning both the presumption of innocence and the requirement that the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Simply put, we find nothing in the record to suggest that the military judge did not hold the government to its burden of proving appellant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the military judge applied a lesser standard in adjudicating the charges against the appellant.

United States v. Hukill, No. 20140939, slip op. at 3 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 16, 2016) (op. on recon.) (link to slip op.). CAAF then granted review of two issues:

I. Whether, in a court-martial tried by military judge alone, the military judge abused his discretion by granting the government’s motion to use the charged sexual misconduct for Military Rule of Evidence 413 purposes to prove propensity to commit the charged sexual misconduct.

II. Whether Judge Paulette V. Burton and Judge Larss G. Celtnieks, judges on the court of military commission review were statutorily authorized to sit on the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, and even if they were statutorily authorized to be assigned to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, whether their service on both courts violated the Appointments Clause given their newly attained status as a superior officer.

The phrasing of the first issue is odd, considering that in Hills CAAF unambiguously held “that admitting charged conduct as M.R.E. 413 evidence was an abuse of discretion.” 75 M.J. at 353. This is because “neither the text of M.R.E. 413 nor the legislative history of its federal counterpart suggests that the rule was intended to permit the government to show propensity by relying on the very acts the government needs to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in the same case.” 75 M.J. at 350. Hills stated a clear principle of law that is contrary to the ruling of the military judge in Hukill. Because there is no discretion to misapply the law, the military judge’s erroneous admission of charged offenses for propensity purposes was an abuse of discretion. The real issue is whether that error was harmless.

Yet in its brief in Hukill the Army Appellate Government Division re-litigates Hills despite the fact that the Government did not seek certiorari of CAAF’s decision.

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In United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), a unanimous CAAF held that charged offenses may not be used under Mil. R. Evid. 413 to prove an accused’s propensity to commit other charged offenses, and also that the standard instruction given to members regarding how to handle such propensity undermines the presumption of innocence.

In United States v. Hukill, No. 20140939 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 16, 2016) (discussed here), the Army CCA concluded that CAAF’s decision in Hills does not apply in judge-alone trials.

Last week CAAF granted review of the Army CCA’s decision in Hukill:

No. 17-0003/AR. U.S. v. Christopher B. Hukill. CCA 20140939. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues:

I. WHETHER, IN A COURT-MARTIAL TRIED BY MILITARY JUDGE ALONE, THE MILITARY JUDGE ABUSED HIS DISCRETION BY GRANTING THE GOVERNMENT’S MOTION TO USE THE CHARGED SEXUAL MISCONDUCT FOR MILITARY RULE OF EVIDENCE 413 PURPOSES TO PROVE PROPENSITY TO COMMIT THE CHARGED SEXUAL MISCONDUCT.

II. WHETHER JUDGE PAULETTE V. BURTON AND JUDGE LARSS G. CELTNIEKS, JUDGES ON THE COURT OF MILITARY COMMISSION REVIEW WERE STATUTORILY AUTHORIZED TO SIT ON THE ARMY COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS, AND EVEN IF THEY WERE STATUTORILY AUTHORIZED TO BE ASSIGNED TO THE ARMY COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS, WHETHER THEIR SERVICE ON BOTH COURTS VIOLATED THE APPOINTMENTS CLAUSE GIVEN THEIR NEWLY ATTAINED STATUS AS A SUPERIOR OFFICER.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25 on Issue I only.

In United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page), a unanimous CAAF held that charged offenses may not be used under Mil. R. Evid. 413 to prove an accused’s propensity to commit the charged offenses, and also that the standard instruction given to members regarding how to handle such propensity undermines the presumption of innocence.

Last week, in United States v. Hukill, No. 20140939 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Aug. 16, 2016) (link to slip op.), the Army CCA held that CAAF’s decision in Hills does not apply to a judge-alone trial:

This case is far different than Hills as appellant elected to be tried by a military judge sitting alone. Although the military judge earlier in the proceeding ruled that the government could use propensity evidence in a manner found to be in error in Hills, this ruling became moot by virtue of appellant’s election for a bench trial. We do not share appellant’s concern that his “presumption of innocence” was somehow eroded by the military judge’s consideration of propensity evidence. “Military judges are presumed to know the law and to follow it absent clear evidence to the contrary.” United States v. Erickson,” 65 M.J. 221, 225 (C.A.A.F. 2007) (citing United States v. Mason, 45 M.J. 483, 484 (C.A.A.F. 1997)). We are satisfied that his view on the admissibility of propensity evidence under Mil. R. Evid. 413 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. We find no risk that the military judge would apply an impermissibly low standard of proof concerning both the presumption of innocence and the requirement that the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Simply put, we find nothing in the record to suggest that the military judge did not hold the government to its burden of proving appellant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the military judge applied a lesser standard in adjudicating the charges against the appellant.

Slip op. at 3.

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