CAAFlog » October 2016 Term » United States v. Mitchell

CAAF decided the certified interlocutory Army case of United States v. Mitchell, 76 M.J. 413,No. 17-0153/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on August 30, 2017. Because continued questioning of a suspect after he invokes his right to counsel violates the Fifth Amendment, CAAF finds that the contents of a cell phone must be suppressed because military investigators requested the passcode to decrypt the phone after the suspect requested an attorney. The phone itself, however, need not be suppressed. CAAF affirms (in part) the decision of the Army CCA and of the military judge suppressing the contents of the phone.

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

Sergeant (E-5) Mitchell is charged with various offenses at a general court-martial. The prosecution wants to use evidence obtained from Mitchell’s cell phone. But the military judge suppressed the contents of the phone (and the phone itself) because military investigators continued to question Mitchell after he requested an attorney. The investigators had a search authorization for the phone, and had asked Mitchell for the passcode to the device. Mitchell (after requesting counsel) refused to tell them the passcode, but he entered the code into the phone and then entered it two more times to permanently disable the security features for the investigators. The prosecution appealed the suppression ruling under Article 62, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the military judge’s ruling, and the Judge Advocate General of the Army certified three issues to CAAF:

I. Whether the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause is violated when a suspect voluntarily unlocks his phone without giving his personal identification number to investigators.

II. Whether the Edwards rule is violated when investigators ask a suspect, who has requested counsel and returned to his place of duty, to unlock his phone incident to a valid search authorization.

III. Whether, assuming investigators violated appellant’s Fifth Amendment privilege or the Edwards rule, the military judge erred by suppressing the evidence.

Concluding that “the Government violated [Mitchell’s] Fifth Amendment right to counsel as protected by [Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)] and [Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477 (1981)],” slip op. at 5, Chief Judge Stucky and the majority apply the plain language of Mil. R. Evid. 305(c)(2) (as rewritten in 2013) to suppress the contents of the phone because it is evidence derived from the interrogation after Mitchell requested counsel.

But Judge Ryan dissents because Mitchell merely entered his passcode into the device while he “declined to state or otherwise speak his passcode to the Government. He declined. There is nothing to suppress there.” Diss. op. at 3.

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Audio of this week’s oral arguments before CAAF is available at the following links:

United States v. Mitchell, No. 17-0153/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio

United States v. Herrmann, No. 16-0599/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio

CAAF will hear oral argument in the certified Army case of United States v. Mitchell, No. 17-0153/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, at at 12:30 p.m., at the Notre Dame Law School, Notre Dame, Indiana.

The case continues a prosecution appeal under Article 62 of a military judge’s ruling that suppressed the contents of Sergeant (E-5) Mitchell’s cell phone because military investigators continued to question him after he requested an attorney and that questioning led to Mitchell decrypting the device for the investigators. The Army Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the military judge’s suppression ruling, and the Judge Advocate General of the Army certified three issues to CAAF:

I. Whether the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause is violated when a suspect voluntarily unlocks his phone without giving his personal identification number to investigators.

II. Whether the Edwards rule is violated when investigators ask a suspect, who has requested counsel and returned to his place of duty, to unlock his phone incident to a valid search authorization.

III. Whether, assuming investigators violated appellant’s Fifth Amendment privilege or the Edwards rule, the military judge erred by suppressing the evidence.

Mitchell is charged with various offenses at a general court-martial. The bulk of the charges relate to allegations that Mitchell harassed his ex-wife. The search of Mitchell’s phone was based on a claim by his ex-wife that Mitchell contacted her using texting applications after he was issued a no-contact order. Mitchell was interrogated on this topic by military criminal investigators at a military police station where Mitchell invoked his right to counsel. Mitchell was then escorted back to his unit, but investigators immediately obtained a search authorization for the phone and Mitchell was brought to his company commander’s office where the investigators met him. There:

The investigators told Appellee [Mitchell] that they had a verbal search and seizure authorization for his electronic media. (JA 479). Appellee handed his iPhone 6 to the investigators. (JA 480). Investigator BT asked Appellee for his PIN, but Appellee refused to provide it. (JA 480). The military judge found as a fact that the investigators next said, ‘”[I]f you could unlock it, great, if you could help us out. But if you don’t, we’ll wait for a digital forensic expert to unlock it,’ or words to that effect.” (JA 480). Appellee refused to provide his PIN, but unlocked the phone and gave it back to the investigators. (JA 480).

Army App. Gov’t Div. Br. at 5. Mitchell’s brief, however, offers an additional fact:

According to SSG Vaughn, the investigators “badgered [SGT Mitchell]” multiple times until SGT Mitchell provided the passcode or unlocked his phone. (R. at 275).

App. Br. at 5.

The military judge concluded that the continued interrogation and Mitchell’s act of decrypting the phone violated Mitchell’s rights under the Fifth Amendment, and she applied Mil. R. Evid. 305(c)(2) to suppress the phone and its contents. The Army Appellate Government Division challenges that ruling and result with a broadside of complex and interwoven legal arguments that ultimately suggest that a suspect has no right to refuse to produce a decryption passcode. The Air Force Appellate Government Division supports the Army Division as amicus curiae. A pair of law professors also appear as amicus in support of the Government (by invitation of the court).

Mitchell responds to the various arguments advanced by the Government divisions, however his brief ultimately argues that the plain language of Mil. R. Evid. 305(c)(2) dictates the suppression of the phone in his case. That rule states:

(2) Fifth Amendment Right to Counsel. If a person suspected of an offense and subjected to custodial interrogation requests counsel, any statement made in the interrogation after such request, or evidence derived from the interrogation after such request, is inadmissible against the accused unless counsel was present for the interrogation.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of the District of Columbia support Mitchell as amicus curiae, arguing in part that “compelled decryption is inherently testimonial.” EFF Amicus Br. at 12. A law student (with professorial oversight) also appears as amicus for Mitchell.

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At the end of last month CAAF received a certification from the Army JAG and the court granted review in a Coast Guard case.

The certification involves a Government appeal of military judge’s ruling that suppressed the fruits of a search of the accused’s mobile phone:

No. 17-0153/AR. United States, Appellant v. Edward J. Mitchell, II, Appellee. CCA 20150776. Notice is hereby given that a certificate for review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals on appeal by the United States under Article 62, Uniform Code of Military Justice, 10 U.S.C. § 862, and a supporting brief under Rule 22, together with a motion to stay trial proceedings were filed on this date on the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE FIFTH AMENDMENT’S SELF-INCRIMINATION CLAUSE IS VIOLATED WHEN A SUSPECT VOLUNTARILY UNLOCKS HIS PHONE WITHOUT GIVING HIS PERSONAL IDENTIFICATION NUMBER TO INVESTIGATORS.

II. WHETHER THE EDWARDS RULE IS VIOLATED WHEN INVESTIGATORS ASK A SUSPECT, WHO HAS REQUESTED COUNSEL AND RETURNED TO HIS PLACE OF DUTY, TO UNLOCK HIS PHONE INCIDENT TO A VALID SEARCH AUTHORIZATION.

III. WHETHER, ASSUMING INVESTIGATORS VIOLATED APPELLANT’S FIFTH AMENDMENT PRIVILEGE OR THE EDWARDS RULE, THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED BY SUPPRESSING THE EVIDENCE.

The Army CCA affirmed the military judge’s ruling in a short opinion available here.

The grant involves a specification under Article 120b that was changed during the trial to allege a different specific sexual act, and a specification under Article 134 that lacked words of criminality such as wrongfully:

No. 17-0028/CG. U.S. v. Shane E. Reese. CCA 1422. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues:

I. WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ERRED IN ALLOWING THE GOVERNMENT TO MAKE A MAJOR CHANGE TO A SPECIFICATION AFTER THE COMPLAINING WITNESS’S TESTIMONY DID NOT SUPPORT THE OFFENSE AS ORIGINALLY CHARGED.

II. WHETHER THE SPECIFICATION OF THE ADDITIONAL CHARGE FAILS TO STATE AN OFFENSE WHERE THE TERMINAL ELEMENT FAILED TO ALLEGE WORDS OF CRIMINALITY AND WHERE THE ALLEGED CONDUCT FELL WITHIN A LISTED OFFENSE OF ARTICLE 134, UCMJ.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The Coast Guard CCA’s opinion is available here. The CCA rejected both issues concluding that the amended specification alleged an act that was essentially included in the original act alleged, and also that words of criminality are not necessarily required (in accordance with United States v. Tevelein, 75 M.J. 708 (C.G. Ct. Crim. App. 2016) (discussed here)). However, one judge dissented and would have dismissed the Article 134 specification due to the omission of words of criminality.