Opinion Analysis: Questioning for a disciplinary purpose with no operational exigency required a rights warning in United States v. Ramos, No. 17-0143/CG
CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of United States v. Ramos, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0143/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, July 19, 2017. The court finds that Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) agents were required to give Article 31(b) rights, and that there was no immediate operational necessity justifying the failure to do so. Accordingly, the military judge erred in failing to suppress Ramos’ statement, and the Coast Guard CCA erred in affirming that ruling.
Chief Judge Erdmann writes for the court, joined by all but Judge Stucky who dissents.
CAAF granted review to determine:
Whether Appellant was entitled to Article 31(b), UCMJ, warnings at any point during his interrogation by CGIS, and if so, whether he was prejudiced by the admission of any of his statements.
Boatswain’s Mate First Class (E-6) Ramos was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a special court-martial composed of officer members, of one specification of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana, three specifications of making a false official statement, and one specification of wrongful possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. The panel sentenced Ramos to confinement for 90 days, reduction to E-3, and a bad-conduct discharge, and the convening authority approved the sentence as adjudged. The CCA disapproved two of the false official statement convictions (seemingly for factual insufficiency), but approved the sentence.
The convictions related to Ramos’ civilian wife’s efforts to start a business manufacturing marijuana under Washington State’s recreational marijuana law. Such a business, however, violates federal civil and military law. The business failed, and the wife’s business partner (named Hart) made threats. Ramos reported those threats to his chain of command and was then interviewed by CGIS. Despite the Government’s knowledge about Ramos’ connection to an unlawful marijuana business, the CGIS agent did not provide Ramos with an Article 31(b) warning during the interview. Ramos then made statements that were admitted against him during his court-martial.
The military judge denied a defense motion to suppress, concluding that there was “no requirement to give Ramos his Article 31(b) rights because [the agent] was not conducting a law enforcement or disciplinary inquiry, but was instead focused on ‘force protection.'” Slip op. at 4. The Coast Guard CCA affirmed, concluding that “the agents’ questions were focused on identifying and mitigating the threat.” Id.
In today’s opinion a majority of CAAF rejects this conclusion, finding instead that this case presents “a classic ‘mixed purpose'” of both force protection and a disciplinary inquiry. Slip op. at 7. The majority then concludes that the circumstances of the questioning “reflect conduct that appears intentionally designed to evade Ramos’s codal rights in furtherance of a law enforcement investigation. ” Slip op. at 8. It also rejects the operational context exception, finding that “there was no immediate operational necessity that required the agents to forgo the Article 31(b) warnings.” Slip op. at 11. But CAAF only reverses Ramos’ conviction of making a false official statement because “Ramos has not challenged his convictions on the drug-related offenses.” Slip op. at 11.
Judge Stucky’s dissent reaches the opposite conclusion on the purpose of the interview, finding that it “was not done for a law enforcement or disciplinary purpose” and so no warning was required. Diss. op. at 3.