CAAF’s unanimous opinion in United States v. Hayes, No. 12-0090/AF, setting-aside the contested specification but otherwise affirming the findings and sentence, was predicted in my recap of the oral argument. However, the things unsaid in the Chief Judge’s opinion speak louder than the things said.
Hayes is an opinion about the sufficiency of proof, but the case is really about the limits – if there are to be any limits – of the reach of the UCMJ. Airman First Class Hayes was convicted, by officer members, of (among other things) dereliction of duty, “in that he willfully failed to refrain from drinking alcohol while under the age of 21, as it was his duty to do.” The purported source of this duty was a Nevada statute, and the custom of the Air Force to obey state law (there was no applicable Air Force regulation).
During the oral argument in this case the government’s counsel took the position that it is a custom of the service to obey all state laws, answering “yes” to Senior Judge Effron’s question, “That every service member has the duty to obey – a military duty to obey - every state law, in every state that they happen to be in, no matter how brief the period in time?” (see a transcript of this exchange here). The court’s hostility to this position is evident in the argument audio, however it didn’t survive to the opinion. Instead, the court finds that:
There is no evidence in the record, and the Government points to none on appeal, to support the proposition that Appellant was bound by a military duty, stemming from a custom of the service and subject to sanction under Article 92(3), UCMJ, to obey Nevada’s alcohol law, or in the alternative, all state laws in Nevada — an obligation imposed on all citizens within the state.” Slip op. at 7.
A footnote alludes to the absurdity of the government’s position, but the court merely finds that the government didn’t prove its case, rather than finding that the government couldn’t prove its case because it was predicated on an absurd reading of the Code. The government’s position presumes that Congress intended dereliction of duty to encompass any violation of legal, regulatory, or administrative rules established by a separate sovereign. It’s a nonsensical and historically ignorant legal theory; like calling daydreaming an unauthorized absence. But CAAF’s treatment of the issue is more moderate, and leaves open the possibility of a successful dereliction prosecution using the government’s theory.
Assume, for example, that the appellant’s commander testified that he expected and instructed his personnel to obey all state laws. Would this specification then succeed? Say it were conceded that servicemembers do generally follow foreign (i.e., non-federal) rules, as a service-customary courtesy towards our hosts and out of good manners. Is then the failure to do so a dereliction? The opinion leaves these questions unanswered.
There are other disappointing aspects of this case, such as why the government even bothered to include this novel dereliction charge (the appellant was also convicted of one specification of wrongful use of marijuana, and six specifications of wrongfully distributing marijuana and cocaine), and why officer members – presumably college educated and capable of critical thought – accepted the government’s legal theory. But the court missed a golden opportunity to set a rational, reasonable outer limit to the reach of the UCMJ by rejecting the government’s legal theory and finding that this specification doesn’t state an offense. Hopefully the government will not see this as a license to give the court more such opportunities.
• AFCCA’s opinion
• Appellant’s brief
• Appellee’s (government) brief
• Appellant’s reply brief
• Oral argument audio
• Blog post: Argument recap
• CAAF’s opinion
• Blog post: Opinion analysis