CAAFlog » October 2017 Term » United States v. Blanks

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

United States v. Blanks, No.17-0404/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Robinson, No.17-0504/AF (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Air Force case of United States v. Blanks, No.17-0404/AF (CAAFlog case page), on Wednesday, January 24, 2018, at 9:30 a.m. The court granted review to determine whether:

In light of this Court’s decision in United States v. Haverty, 76 M.J. 199 (C.A.A.F. 2017) [CAAFlog case page], did the military judge err when he instructed the members Appellant could be convicted of negligent dereliction of duty?

Article 92(3) addresses one who “is derelict in the performance of his duties.” Twenty-four years ago, CAAF explicitly held that “simple negligence is the proper standard for determining whether the nonperformance of military duty is derelict within the meaning of Article 92(3).” United States v. Lawson, 36 M.J. 415, 416 (C.M.A. 1993). But forty years before that – and only two years after the UCMJ took effect – the court first acknowledged that “when the nonperformance [of a duty] is the result of a lack of ordinary care, the omission is negligent,” and that such negligence can violate Article 92(3). United States v. Grow, 3 U.S.C.M.A. 77, 86-87 (C.M.A. 1953) (quoting Manual for Courts-Martial (1951 ed.), ¶ 171c).

Recently, however, CAAF repeatedly addressed mens rea (the mental state required to commit an offense), and the subject was the #8 Military Justice Story of 2017. It got such attention in part because a functionally-unanimous decision in United States v. Haverty, 76 M.J. 199, (C.A.A.F. Apr. 25, 2017) (CAAFlog case page), applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001 (2015), to find that recklessness is the minimum mens rea adequate to sustain a conviction of hazing in violation of Army Regulation 200-20 paragraph 4-20.

Armed with that precedent, Senior Airman (E-4) Blanks challenges his conviction (for the first time on appeal) of negligent dereliction of duty adjudged as a lesser included offense of the charged offense of willful failure to provide adequate financial support to his wife. App. Br. at 2. The underlying facts include that Blanks falsely told his command that he was married to the mother of the child (in order to obtain 10 days of parental leave after the child was born), when Blanks was really married to someone else. Blanks’ brief also offers a soap opera’s worth of additional facts. App. Br. at 3-9.

CAAF’s review, however, will focus on the law. Specifically, Blanks asks CAAF to overrule Lawson and apply Haverty to hold that “recklessness is the lowest mens rea which is necessary to separate wrongful conduct from otherwise innocent conduct,” and therefore “Blanks’ conviction for negligent dereliction of duty must be set aside.” App. Br. at 9 (marks and internal citations omitted).

It has the markings of a tough sell.

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On Tuesday CAAF granted review in this Air Force case:

No. 17-0404/AF. U.S. v. Vashaun M. Blanks. CCA 38891. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

IN LIGHT OF THIS COURT’S DECISION IN UNITED STATES v. HAVERTY, 76 M.J. 199 (C.A.A.F. 2017), DID THE MILITARY JUDGE ERR WHEN HE INSTRUCTED THE MEMBERS APPELLANT COULD BE CONVICTED OF NEGLIGENT DERELICTION OF DUTY?

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The CCA’s opinion is available here and reveals that the appellant was “charged with willful dereliction of duty for failing to provide adequate support to his wife over a time period that spanned his assignments to both Korea and the United Kingdom, [but] the members instead found Appellant guilty of the lesser-included offense of negligent dereliction of duty.” Slip op. at 5. The CCA decided the case a month before CAAF decided Haverty.

In the Army case of United States v. Haverty, 76 M.J. 199, (C.A.A.F. Apr. 25, 2017) (CAAFlog case page), a functionally-unanimous court applied the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001 (2015), to find that recklessness is the minimum mens rea (mental state) adequate to sustain a conviction of hazing in violation of Army Regulation 200-20 paragraph 4-20.

Article 92(3) addresses a person who “is derelict in the performance of his duties.” Twenty-four years ago the court held “that the military judge properly instructed the members in this case that simple negligence is the proper standard for determining whether the nonperformance of military duty is derelict within the meaning of Article 92(3).” United States v. Lawson, 36 M.J. 415, 416 (C.M.A. 1993). In reaching that decision the court considered the legislative history of the Article, concluding that:

[T]he more reasonable interpretation of this new codal provision is that Congress rejected an exclusive culpable-negligence standard and intended, instead, to punish both types [simple and culpable/gross] of negligent-duty conduct under Article 92(3).

The new legislative term “derelict” was broad enough to include both degrees of negligence and incorporate Navy practice with Army and Air Force practice. Prior to enactment of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950, the Army and Air Force also punished neglect of duty under the general article, Article of War 96. Para. 183a, Manual for Courts-Martial, U.S. Army, 1949 at 255. The Army interpreted the word “neglect” in the general article as simply an omission of conduct. See generally Snedeker, supra at 616. This practice is also referred to in the legislative history with a comment that it was now punishable under the new Article 92(3). Accordingly, it is our conclusion, at the very least, that Congress intended to establish a simple-negligence standard for nonperformance-of-duty derelicts charged under this statute.

36 M.J. at 421. That conclusion, however, now seems to be in doubt.