Opinion Analysis: Sexual assault involving nonconsensual sexual activity is a general intent crime because “the burden is on the actor to obtain consent, rather than the victim to manifest lack of consent,” in United States v. McDonald
CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. McDonald, 78 M.J. 376, No. 18-0308/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. The court concludes that the mens rea (mental state) for the offense of sexual assault by causing bodily harm in violation of Article 120(b)(1)(B) (2012), where the bodily harm is a nonconsensual sexual act, is the general intent to commit the sexual act.
Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.
CAAF granted review of a single issue:
Whether the military judge erred in instructing the panel that a negligent mens rea was sufficient to make otherwise lawful conduct criminal.
Mens rea was the #8 Military Justice Story of 2017 because of a series of CAAF decisions involving the mental state required to violate the UCMJ. McDonald (and a second case presenting substantially the same issue) involves Article 120(b)(1)(B) (2012), which prohibited sexual assault by causing bodily harm, and the definition of bodily harm included a nonconsensual sexual act or sexual contact. Congress repealed that offense in Section 5430 of the Military Justice Act of 2016 (that became effective on January 1, 2019), but it replaced it with a new-but-similar Article 120(b)(2)(A) that prohibits “commit[ting] a sexual act upon another person without the consent of the other person.”
In neither offense, however, did Congress identify a specific mens rea. Put differently, Congress didn’t say whether – to be guilty of the offense – an accused must actually know that the other person didn’t consent (actual knowledge), or recklessly disregard evidence of lack or consent (recklessness), or just fail to discover that the other person didn’t consent (negligence). Congress also could have said (but didn’t say) that the accused’s knowledge of anything doesn’t matter at all (strict liability), or that the accused need only know that he was committing the physical acts constituting the offense (general intent).
CAAF granted review in McDonald back in September (noted here), and since then two CCAs have issued decisions addressing this issue. First, in United States v. Patrick, __ M.J. __ (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Dec. 11, 2018) (link to slip op.), the NMCCA held that the applicable mens rea is found in the definition of sexual act which required (under the facts of that case) an intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, or degrade. A month later, in United States v. Peebles, __ M.J. __, No. 20170044 (A. Ct. Crim. App. Jan 10, 2019) (link to slip op.), the Army CCA rejected the NMCCA’s reasoning and held that “recklessness is the mens rea applicable to the element of non-consent in Article 120(b)(l)(B), where the bodily harm is alleged to be the sexual act itself.”
Now, with its decision in McDonald, CAAF resolves the question in a way more similar to the decision of the NMCCA than the ACCA. Chief Judge Stucky writes that “Congress clearly intended a general intent mens rea for Article 120(b)(1)(B).” Slip op. at 4. That means that:
As a general intent offense, sexual assault by bodily harm has an implied mens rea that an accused intentionally committed the sexual act. No mens rea is required with regard to consent, however.
Slip op. at 8 (citation omitted).