Opinion Analysis: No privilege for statements to a victim advocate made in the presence of a third-party, but maybe ineffective assistance of counsel, in United States v. Harpole
CAAF decided the Coast Guard case of United States v. Harpole, 77 M.J. 231, No.17-0171/CG (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. The court unanimously concludes that the appellant’s statements to a military victim advocate were not privileged because a third-party was present when the statements were made, however a majority finds that further fact-finding is necessary to determine whether it was ineffective assistance of counsel for the defense to fail to seek suppression of the statements for violation of Article 31(b). Accordingly, CAAF reverses the decision of the Coast Guard CCA and remands the case for a fact-finding hearing.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court, joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky who dissents because he concludes that any motion to suppress would have failed.
CAAF granted review of three issues:
I. Whether the military judge abused her discretion when she allowed a victim advocate to testify as to Appellant’s privileged communications, in violation of M.R.E. 514.
II. Whether the trial defense counsel were ineffective by failing to suppress Appellant’s unwarned admissions. These admissions were made to YNI NIPP when she knew he was a suspect and under investigation. She intended to report these admissions to the command and questioned him without advising him of his Art. 31 UCMJ, rights.
III. Upon request by the defense counsel and using a defense-drafted instruction, should the military judge have provided the members with an explanation of the term “incapable”?
The third granted issue was not briefed and was resolved by United States v. Bailey, 77 M.J. 11 (C.A.A.F. Nov. 29, 2017) (CAAFlog case page). Slip op. at 2.
After a night of drinking during a port call in Tahiti, Seaman (E-3) Harpole went into a four-person female stateroom aboard the USCGC Polar Star, ostensibly to retrieve his backpack from the alleged victim, Storekeeper Third Class (SK3) GR. While he was in the room, he and GR had sex. GR was later confronted by her roommates about the encounter but stated she could not remember what happened (because she too had been drinking during the port call). She then reported the incident as a sexual assault.
“Three days after the incident, Appellant informed his friend, Seaman Boatswain’s Mate (SNBM) SC, and a victim advocate, Yeoman First Class (YN1) Nipp, that SK3 GR had sexually assaulted him.” Slip op. at 4 (emphasis in original). YN1 Nipp then reported Harpole’s statements to the command and gave “a detailed written statement about [Harpole]’s communication to her.” Slip op. at 4.
Harpole’s defense moved to prevent YN1 Nipp from testifying, asserting the Mil. R. Evid. 514 victim advocate-victim privilege. The military judge found that the privilege does not apply and denied the motion. Harpole was then convicted by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation of making a false official statement, two specifications of sexual assault, and housebreaking, and he was sentenced to confinement for seven years, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge. The Coast Guard CCA affirmed the findings and sentence, agreeing that the victim advocate-victim privilege does not apply and rejecting a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel on the basis that “the theory that [YN1 Nipp] was acting as a Victim Advocate is factually inconsistent with the theory that [YN1 Nipp] was required to give Appellant his Article 31(b) rights.” United States v. Harpole, No. 1420, slip op. at 8 (C.G. Ct. Crim. App. Nov. 10, 2016).
Judge Ohlson’s opinion of the court affirms the military judge and Coast Guard CCA’s conclusions about the privilege, but it scolds the CCA for asserting an inconsistency, noting that “there is nothing improper or unusual about counsel presenting arguments in the alternative before a trial judge.” Slip op. at 10 n.11.