CAAFlog » September 2015 Term » United States v. Hills

Our #3 Military Justice Story of 2016 is CAAF’s blockbuster decision in United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 27, 2016) (CAAFlog case page).

Read more »

CAAF decided the Army case of United States v. Hills, 75 M.J. 350, No. 15-0767/AR (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, June 27, 2016.

In a hugely-significant decision, CAAF holds that charged offenses may not be used under Mil. R. Evid. 413 to prove an accused’s propensity to commit the charged offenses, and also that the standard instruction given to members regarding how to handle such propensity evidence is constitutionally erroneous because it undermines the presumption of innocence. CAAF concludes that the error in this case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because of the overall weakness of the Government’s case, and it reverses the decision of the Army CCA and the appellant’s conviction of abusive sexual contact, authorizing a rehearing.

Judge Ryan writes for a unanimous court.

Sergeant Hills was convicted by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, of one specification of abusive sexual contact in violation of Article 120. The conviction arose from an alleged sexual encounter with a heavily intoxicated female soldier. Hills was acquitted to two additional specifications of abusive sexual contact arising out of the same encounter with the same alleged victim. The members sentenced him to confinement for six months, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge.

At trial, and over the objection of the defense, the military judge allowed the prosecution to use the three charged violations of Article 120 as evidence to prove Hills’ propensity to commit those same offenses. While American law generally prohibits using a person’s bad character to prove them guilty of a criminal offense, Congress created two exceptions (for sexual offenses) with the enactment of Federal Rules of Evidence 413 and 414 in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, § 320935, 108 Stat. 1796, 2135 (1994). Those Rules were incorporated into the Military Rules of Evidence in 1998. Exec. Order No. 13086, 63 Fed. Reg. 30,065, 30078 (June 2, 1998).

For years those Rules were used to introduce evidence of uncharged acts against an accused, and not to argue that the charged acts themselves were evidence of an accused’s propensity to commit those same alleged offenses. But our #6 Military Justice Story of 2015 was the use of charged sex offenses as propensity evidence under Mil. R. Evid. 413, as three courts of criminal appeals issued opinions in 2015 approving the use of charged sexual offenses as evidence of an accused’s propensity to commit the charged sexual offenses, just as was done in Hills.

The Army CCA considered this use of the charged offenses and affirmed the conviction. CAAF then granted review of one issue:

Whether the military judge abused his discretion by granting the government’s motion to use the charged sexual misconduct for Military Rule of Evidence 413 purposes to prove propensity to commit the charged sexual misconduct.

In today’s decision a unanimous CAAF holds not only that the military judge did abuse his discretion but also that the instructions he gave to the members undermined Hills’ presumption of innocence, creating constitutional error (that must be found to be harmless beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain the conviction).

Read more »

Audio of yesterday’s oral arguments at CAAF is available at the following links:

United States v. Evans, No. 16-0019/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Hills, No. 15-0767/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Army case of United States v. Hills, No. 15-0767/AR (CAAFlog case page), on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 (after the argument in Evans). The case challenges the use of the charged offenses as propensity evidence under Military Rule of Evidence 413 – our #6 Military Justice Story of 2015 – with the following granted issue:

Whether the military judge abused his discretion by granting the government’s motion to use the charged sexual misconduct for Military Rule of Evidence 413 purposes to prove propensity to commit the charged sexual misconduct.

Sergeant Hills was convicted by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, contrary to his pleas of not guilty, of one specification of abusive sexual contact in violation of Article 120. The conviction arose from an alleged sexual encounter with a heavily intoxicated female soldier. Hills was acquitted to two additional specifications of abusive sexual contact arising out of the same encounter with the same alleged victim. The members sentenced him to confinement for six months, reduction to E-1, and a bad-conduct discharge.

At trial, and over the objection of the defense, the military judge granted a Government motion to permit the use of the three charged violations of Article 120 as evidence to prove Hills’ propensity to commit those same offenses. While American law generally prohibits using a person’s bad character to prove them guilty of a criminal offense, Congress created two exceptions (for sexual offenses) with the enactment of Federal Rules of Evidence 413 and 414 in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, § 320935, 108 Stat. 1796, 2135 (1994). Those Rules were incorporated into the Military Rules of Evidence in 1998. Exec. Order No. 13086, 63 Fed. Reg. 30,065, 30078 (June 2, 1998).

Read more »

Three new – and particularly noteworthy – grants appear on CAAF’s docket.

First, an Army case challenges the use of charged offenses as admissible propensity evidence under Military Rule of Evidence 413. This issue was our #6 Military Justice Story of 2015:

No. 15-0767/AR. U.S. v. Kendell Hills. CCA 20130833. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

WHETHER THE MILITARY JUDGE ABUSED HIS DISCRETION BY GRANTING THE GOVERNMENT’S MOTION TO USE THE CHARGED SEXUAL MISCONDUCT FOR MILITARY RULE OF EVIDENCE 413 PURPOSES TO PROVE PROPENSITY TO COMMIT THE CHARGED SEXUAL MISCONDUCT.

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The Army CCA’s opinion in Hills is available here.

Next, in another Army case, CAAF specified an issue questioning the proper test for prejudice when evidence is admitted in violation of the statutory protections of Article 31(b):

No. 16-0019/AR. U.S. v. Asa M. Evans. CCA 20130647. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Army Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue specified by the Court:

WHERE THE ARMY COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS FOUND EVIDENCE WAS ADMITTED IN VIOLATION OF APPELLANT’S ARTICLE 31(b), UCMJ, RIGHTS, DID THE COURT ERR IN APPLYING THE KERR PREJUDICE TEST AS OPPOSED TO THE BRISBANE HARMLESS BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT TEST?

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The Army CCA’s opinion in Evans is available here.

Finally, CAAF ordered oral argument on a specified issue in an Air Force case that was certified to CAAF back in October (discussed here). The certified issue challenges the Air Force CCA’s conclusion that the military judge improperly admitted evidence under Mil. R. Evid. 413. The CCA issued its opinion on June 19, 2015, but the JAG did not certify the case until October 7; seemingly past the 60-day time period set for filing a certification in CAAF’s Rule 22(b)(3). However, the Government repeatedly sought reconsideration by the CCA during that time, ostensibly continuing the CCA’s jurisdiction over the case and extending the beginning of the 60-day time period. CAAF will now review that procedural tactic:

No. 16-0053/AF.U.S. v. Shelby L. Williams.CCA 38454.  On consideration of Appellee’s motion to dismiss the case because the certificate of review was not timely filed, and the government’s opposition thereto, it is ordered that the parties shall present oral argument on the following issue:

WHETHER THE UNITED STATES MAY FILE SUCCESSIVE MOTIONS FOR RECONSIDERATION OF A DECISION OF THE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS, AND THEREBY EFFECTIVELY EXTEND THE 60-DAY FILING DEADLINE FOR A CERTIFICATE OF REVIEW OF SUCH DECISION. SEE CAAF RULES OF PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE 19(b)(3); 22(b)(3); AND 34(a).

The date and time of oral argument will be provided to counsel in a separate order.

CAAF’s narrow reading of the jurisdiction of the CCAs was our #5 Military Justice Story of 2015.