Opinion Analysis: No error in the military judge’s consideration of charged offenses as evidence of a common plan or scheme, in United States v. Hyppolite
CAAF decided the Air Force case of United States v. Hyppolite, II., 79 M.J. __, Nos.19-0119/AF & 19-0197/AF (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on August 1, 2019. Reviewing a military judge’s ruling under Military Rule of Evidence 404(b) that allowed the prosecution to use charged offenses as evidence that the accused acted pursuant to a common plan or scheme, a majority of the court finds no error and it affirms the findings and sentence.
Judge Maggs writes for the court, joined by all but Judge Ohlson, who dissents.
Staff Sergeant (E-5) Hyppolite was charged with five violations of Article 120 for allegedly sexually assaulting four other Airmen over a two-year period. The first three specifications alleged that Hyppolite touched three victims’ genitals while they were asleep; the last two specifications alleged non-consensual sexual acts with an intoxicated victim (who was not necessarily asleep) on one occasion. Hyppolite’s defense counsel moved to sever the first thee specifications from the last two, highlighting the different facts of each set of allegations. A military judge disagreed, ruling instead that “each specification is probative as to the other specifications on the issue of a common plan on the part of the accused.” Slip op. at 3 (marks omitted). Hyppolite then elected to be tried by a military judge alone, and he was convicted of four of the five specifications: two of the alleged touchings of sleeping victims, and both of the alleged acts with the intoxicated victim. The military judge sentenced Hyppolite to confinement for seven years, reduction to E-1, total forfeitures, and a dishonorable discharge.
On appeal, a three-judge panel of the Air Force CCA reversed one of Hyppolite’s convictions (involving a sleeping victim) for factual insufficiency. It also held that the military judge’s common plan or scheme ruling was error because evidence of the alleged acts with the sleeping victims did not support the existence of a common plan for the alleged acts with the intoxicated victim, and vice versa. But the CCA concluded that the error was harmless with respect to the remaining convictions (one of the sleeping victim allegations, and both of the intoxicated victim allegations).
CAAF granted review of the CCA’s finding of harmlessness and then the Judge Advocate General of the Air Force cross-certified a challenge to the CCA’s finding of error:
Granted issue: Whether the military judge’s erroneous admission of evidence regarding Specifications 1, 2, and 3 as a common plan or scheme for Specifications 4 and 5 was harmless.
Certified issue: Did the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals err when it found the military judge abused his discretion by ruling that the evidence regarding Specifications 1, 2, and 3 could be considered as evidence of a common plan or scheme for Specifications 4 and 5.
Judge Maggs’ majority opinion answers only the certified issue, concluding that two military judges – one who ruled on the motion and another who presided over the trial – did not abuse their discretion because “it was within the discretion of the two military judges to find a common plan or scheme based on the common factors among the specifications.” Slip op. at 11. Judge Ohlson, however, finds both error and prejudice, and would reverse the two convictions involving the intoxicated victim.