Opinion Analysis: A request for a device passcode after the suspect consents to a search of the device (but also requested an attorney) does not violate the right against self-incrimination, in United States v. Robinson (AF)
CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Robinson, __ M.J. __, No.17-0504/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, March 26, 2018. One of two cases by the same name (but with different appellants) decided today, in this case a majority of the court finds no constitutional violation in military investigators requesting a device passcode from a suspect who consented to a search of the device after invoking his right to remain silent and requesting an attorney, affirming the published decision of the Air Force CCA.
Judge Ohlson writes for the court joined by all but Chief Judge Stucky, who dissents.
Last term, in the interlocutory case of United States v. Mitchell, 76 M.J. 413 (C.A.A.F. Aug. 30, 2017) (CAAFlog case page), CAAF held that because continued questioning of a suspect after he invokes his right to counsel violates the Fifth Amendment, the contents of a cell phone must be suppressed when military investigators request the passcode to decrypt the phone after the suspect requests an attorney. The decision was the #4 Military Justice Story of 2017.
Senior Airman (E-4) Robinson was convicted of communicating indecent language to a minor in violation of Article 120b, and sentenced to confinement for one month, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge. The evidence admitted against Robinson included text messages extracted from his cell phone. Those messages were obtained after the investigators asked Robinson for the passcode to the phone. That request, however, came after Robinson informed the investigators that he had an attorney and invoked his right to remain silent.
At trial, Robinson’s defense counsel moved to suppress the text messages on the basis that Robinson’s consent to search and his disclosure of the passcode were both involuntary. The military judge denied the motion and the Air Force CCA affirmed in a published decision (76 M.J. 663) (analyzed here). The CCA also rejected a claim that the search of the device exceeded the scope of the consent, finding that the failure to raise the issue at trial waived it. CAAF then granted review of two issues:
I. Whether the military judge abused his discretion by failing to suppress evidence obtained from Appellant’s cell phone.
II. Whether the Air Force Court erred in holding Appellant waived objections regarding investigators’ exceeding the scope of Appellant’s consent.
In today’s opinion Judge Ohlson and the majority reject application of Mitchell by distinguishing the facts of this case from the facts of Mitchell. Judge Ohlson also explains that waiver applies to the scope issue raised for the first time on appeal based on the wording of the applicable Military Rule of Evidence and CAAF’s precedent interpreting that rule.
Chief Judge Stucky, however, dissents from the court’s resolution of the first issue. The Chief Judge – who authored the court’s opinion in Mitchell – finds this case indistinguishable from Mitchell, and he would not reach the second issue.