CAAFlog » October 2016 Term » United States v. Sager

CAAF decided the Navy case of United States v. Sager, __ M.J. __, No. 16-0418/NA (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on  Tuesday, March 21, 2017. Reviewing the text of Article 120(b)(2), as incorporated by Article 120(d), CAAF concludes that the language “asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware” creates three separate theories under which an accused may be convicted. The court reverses the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA that found that the language creates only a single theory of criminal liability, and remands the case for further consideration.

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

Aviation Ordnanceman Airman (E-3) Sager was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of one specification of abusive sexual contact in violation of Article 120(d) (2012). That statute criminalizes sexual contact in the same way that Article 120(b) criminalizes sexual acts. The Government charged Sager with two specifications, both related to a sexual encounter between Sager and his roommate. One specification alleged that the roommate was incapable of consenting due to intoxication, while the other alleged that the roommate was asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware. The members acquitted Sager outright of the specification implicating intoxication, but returned findings by exceptions to the specification implicating unawareness:

On appeal, Sager asserted that the specification was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to identify how the roommate was otherwise unaware, and also that the finding is factually and legally insufficient because the evidence indicated that the roommate was either asleep or unconscious. Sager’s argument was essentially that the statute’s enumeration of asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware creates three separate and distinct theories of criminal liability. The NMCCA, however, rejected this argument, concluding that:

asleep or unconscious are examples of how an individual may be “otherwise unaware” and are not alternate theories of criminal liability.

United States v. Sager, No. 201400356, slip op. at 7 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Dec. 29, 2015) (link to slip op.). From this conclusion the NMCCA then found that evidence of the roommate’s degree of intoxication or unconsciousness was relevant, and it affirmed the conviction. CAAF then granted review of two issues questioning both the meaning of the statute and the adequacy of the CCA’s review of the evidence:

I. In affirming the abusive sexual contact conviction, the lower court relied on facts of which the members acquitted appellant. Was this error?

II. Article 120(d), UCMJ, prohibits sexual contact on another person when that person is “asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware.” Despite these specific statutory terms, the lower court held that “asleep” and “unconscious” do not establish theories of criminal liability, but only the phrase “otherwise unaware” establishes criminal liability. Did the lower court err in its interpretation of Article 120(d), UCMJ?

In today’s opinion Chief Judge Erdmann and the majority answer the second issue in the affirmative, finding that the CCA erred in its statutory interpretation, but decline to answer the first issue, remanding it to the CCA for further review. Judge Stucky, however, would affirm the conviction.

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

United States v. Bartee, No. 16-0391/MC (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Sager, No. 16-0418/NA (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Navy case of United States v. Sager, No. 16-0418/NA (CAAFlog case page), on  Tuesday, November 15, 2016, after the oral argument in Bartee. The case presents two issues involving statutory interpretation of Article 120(b)(2), which criminalizes sexual activity with a person who is asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware when the accused knew or reasonably should have known that the other person was in such a condition:

I. In affirming the abusive sexual contact conviction, the lower court relied on facts of which the members acquitted appellant. Was this error?

II. Article 120(d), UCMJ, prohibits sexual contact on another person when that person is “asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware.” Despite these specific statutory terms, the lower court held that “asleep” and “unconscious” do not establish theories of criminal liability, but only the phrase “otherwise unaware” establishes criminal liability. Did the lower court err in its interpretation of Article 120(d), UCMJ?

Aviation Ordnanceman Airman (E-3) Sager was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of one specification of abusive sexual contact in violation of Article 120(d) (2012). That statute criminalizes sexual contact in the same way that Article 120(b) criminalizes sexual acts. The Government charged Sager with two specifications, both related to a sexual encounter between Sager and his roommate. One specification alleged that the roommate was incapable of consenting due to intoxication, while the other alleged that the roommate was asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware (an erroneous disjunctive pleading). The members acquitted Sager outright of the specification implicating intoxication, but returned findings by exceptions to the specification implicating awareness:

sager

Gov’t Br. at 10.

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Article 120(b) and 120(d) prohibit committing a sexual act (120(b)) or a sexual contact (120(d)) upon a person who is:

asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware that the sexual [act/contact] is occurring

In United States v. Sager, No. 201400356 (N-M. Ct. Crim. App. Dec. 29, 2015) (link to slip op.), the appellant was convicted of violating Article 120(d) by touching another man’s penis with his hand while the other man was otherwise unaware that the contact was occurring. Specifically, while the appellant was charged with violating the statute in all three possible ways (that the other man was asleep, unconscious, or otherwise unaware when the appellant touched him; an erroneous disjunctive pleading), the members returned a finding of guilty to only a touching when the other man was otherwise unaware. That prompted the appellant to assert on appeal that the specification was unconstitutionally vague because it failed to identify how the other man was otherwise unaware, and that the finding is factually and legally insufficient because the evidence indicated that the other man was either asleep or unconscious (he testified that he awoke from a drunken slumber to the sensation of the appellant touching him).

The Navy-Marine Corps CCA rejected the appellant’s assertions by concluding that:

asleep or unconscious are examples of how an individual may be “otherwise unaware” and are not alternate theories of criminal liability.

Slip op. at 7.

On Tuesday CAAF granted review of two issues that challenge the CCA’s conclusion:

No. 16-0418/NA. U.S. v. Jeffrey D. Sager. CCA 201400356. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issues:

I. IN AFFIRMING THE ABUSIVE SEXUAL CONTACT CONVICTION, THE LOWER COURT RELIED ON FACTS OF WHICH THE MEMBERS ACQUITTED APPELLANT. WAS THIS ERROR?

II. ARTICLE 120(d), UCMJ, PROHIBITS SEXUAL CONTACT ON ANOTHER PERSON WHEN THAT PERSON IS “ASLEEP, UNCONSCIOUS, OR OTHERWISE UNAWARE.” DESPITE THESE SPECIFIC STATUTORY TERMS, THE LOWER COURT HELD THAT “ASLEEP” AND “UNCONSCIOUS” DO NOT ESTABLISH THEORIES OF CRIMINAL LIABILITY, BUT ONLY THE PHRASE “OTHERWISE UNAWARE” ESTABLISHES CRIMINAL LIABILITY. DID THE LOWER COURT ERR IN ITS INTERPRETATION OF ARTICLE 120(d), UCMJ?

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.