CAAFlog » October 2017 Term » United States v. Dinger

Last year’s the top story was the exercise of court-martial jurisdiction over retired members of the armed forces. Military retirement isn’t retirement in the ordinary meaning of the term; it’s just a change in status and the UCMJ applies to regular retirees who are entitled to pay. But the exercise (and even the acknowledgement) of such jurisdiction was rare prior to events in 2017 that brought new attention to the fact that military retirees face military prosecution (even for post-retirement misconduct).

One such prosecution was the case of Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) Dinger, USMC (Ret.), who retired after completing 20 years of active enlisted service in the Marine Corps. After his retirement, Dinger lived in Okinawa, Japan, and worked as a military contractor. While there Dinger became a suspect in a child pornography investigation, and a search revealed evidence of possession and production of child pornography. Dinger was arrested, returned to the United States, and indicted under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), 18 U.S.C. § 3261.

MEJA, however, generally can’t be used to prosecute a member of the armed forces who is subject to the UCMJ, and Dinger’s retired status put him in that category. So the prosecution moved to dismiss the indictment, and the indictment was dismissed. A court-martial prosecution followed (at which Dinger appeared in civilian clothes), and Dinger agreed to plead guilty in exchange for an eight-year cap on confinement. But the plea deal did not protect Dinger against a punitive discharge, and he received a sentence that included a dishonorable discharge.

Dinger challenged that discharge on appeal but, in 2018, CAAF affirmed the discharge and the Supreme Court rejected Dinger’s petition for review. United States v. Dinger, 77 M.J. 447 (C.A.A.F. Jun. 18, 2018), pet. denied, __ S.Ct. __ (Nov. 13, 2018) (CAAFlog case page).

CAAF’s holding that a retired member may be sentenced to a punitive discharge is the #6 Military Justice Story of 2018.

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CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Dinger, 77 M.J. 447, No. 17-0510/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Monday, June 18, 2018. The court holds that a retired member of the armed forces can be sentenced to a punitive discharge, affirming the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA and the adjudged sentence in this case.

Chief Judge Stucky writes for a unanimous court.

Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) Dinger, USMC (Ret.), pleaded guilty to a number of child exploitation offenses, all of which were committed after Dinger entered retired status following the completion of 20 years of enlisted service in the active component of the Marine Corps. A general court-martial composed of a military judge alone sentenced Dinger to confinement for nine years and a dishonorable discharge, and the convening authority suspended all confinement in excess of 8 years in accordance with a pretrial agreement.

The military judge rejected a trial-stage argument that the sentence could not lawfully include a punitive discharge (because of Dinger’s retired status), and the Navy-Marine Corps CCA again rejected the argument on appeal. CAAF then granted review of a single issue:

10 U.S.C § 6332 states that when a person is placed in a retired status, this “transfer is conclusive for all purposes.” Can a court-martial lawfully sentence a retiree to a punitive discharge?

In yesterday’s opinion Chief Judge Stucky explains that CAAF agrees with the military judge and the NMCCA, overruling precedent insofar as it supports a different outcome.

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Audio of last week’s outreach oral arguments is available at the following links:

United States v. Jones, No. 17-0608/AR (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

United States v. Dinger, No. 17-0510/MC (CAAFlog case page): Oral argument audio.

CAAF will hear oral argument in the Marine Corps case of United States v. Dinger, No. 17-0510/MC (CAAFlog case page), on Thursday, April 5, 2018, at 10:00 a.m., at Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas. The court granted review to determine whether a court-martial may lawfully sentence a retired member to a punitive discharge, with the following issue:

10 U.S.C § 6332 states that when a person is placed in a retired status, this “transfer is conclusive for all purposes.” Can a court-martial lawfully sentence a retiree to a punitive discharge?

Gunnery Sergeant (E-7) Dinger, USMC (Ret.), pleaded guilty to two specifications of committing indecent acts, one specification of attempting to produce child pornography, two specifications of wrongfully making an indecent visual recording, and one specification of receiving, viewing, and possessing child pornography, in violation of Articles 80, 120, 120c, and 134, UCMJ. All of the offenses were committed after Dinger entered a retired status following the completion of 20 years of enlisted service in the active component of the Marine Corps. The military judge sentenced Dinger to confinement for nine years and a dishonorable discharge, and the convening authority suspended all confinement in excess of 8 years in accordance with a pretrial agreement.

The NMCCA affirmed in a published decision (76 M.J. 552) discussed here. The CCA rejected the issue now before CAAF and also rejected a separate claim that the court-martial lacked personal jurisdiction over Dinger, explaining that retired members of the active components of the armed forces remain subject to the UCMJ because “those in a retired status remain ‘members’ of the land and Naval forces who may face court-martial.” 76 M.J. at at 557.

Military retirement isn’t retirement in the ordinary meaning of the term; it’s just a change in status. Under Article 2(a)(4), the UCMJ applies to regular retirees who are entitled to pay. That category includes servicemembers who complete 20 (or more) years on active duty and accept retirement, and also those who are medically retired after less time. See United States v. Bowie, 34 C.M.R. 411, 412 (C.M.A. 1964).

The exercise of court-martial jurisdiction over retired members was the #1 Military Justice Story of 2017, and Dinger’s status as a Marine on the retired list seems indisputable. But his brief to CAAF begins by disputing it anyway:

As a civilian, Appellant appeared at his court-martial in civilian clothes.

App. Br. at 3. That Dinger was tried out of uniform is somewhat unsettling (and a better historian could probably count on one hand the number of times that’s happened under the UCMJ), but it doesn’t change the fact that he was a Marine gunnery sergeant on the retired list, entitled to pay, subject to recall, and subject to the UCMJ. In short, he was no civilian.

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Earlier this year, in this post, I discussed the NMCCA’s opinion in United States v. Dinger, 76 M.J. 552 (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 28, 2017), in which a three-judge panel of that court affirmed that military retirement isn’t really retirement, it’s merely a change in duty status, and those who retire from active duty and receive retired pay remain subject to the UCMJ.

On Monday CAAF granted review, but of a narrow issue:

No. 17-0510/MC. U.S. v. Derrick L. Dinger. CCA 201600108. On consideration of the petition for grant of review of the decision of the United States Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals, it is ordered that said petition is hereby granted on the following issue:

10 U.S.C. § 6332 STATES THAT WHEN A PERSON IS PLACED IN A RETIRED STATUS, THIS “TRANSFER IS CONCLUSIVE FOR ALL PURPOSES.” CAN A COURT-MARTIAL LAWFULLY SENTENCE A RETIREE TO A PUNITIVE DISCHARGE?

Briefs will be filed under Rule 25.

The same issue is likely raised in Hennis – which is before the court for mandatory review under Article 67(a)(1) – because Hennis was a retiree who was sentenced to death and “a sentence of death includes a dishonorable discharge or dismissal as appropriate.” R.C.M. 1004(e).

In a published issued yesterday, in United States v. Dinger, 76 M.J. 552, No. 201600108 (N.M. Ct. Crim. App. Mar. 28, 2017) (link to slip op.), a three-judge panel of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA affirms a concept that I last noted here: Military retirement isn’t really retirement, it’s merely a change in duty status-

Notwithstanding Barker [v. Kansas, 503 U.S. 594, 605 (1992)] and its implications regarding the tax status of retired pay, we are firmly convinced that those in a retired status remain “members” of the land and Naval forces who may face court-martial. As the appellant was in a retired status during the offenses and the proceedings, he was validly subject to court-martial.

Slip op. at 8.

The appellant, Gunnery Sergeant Dinger, USMC (Ret.), pleaded guilty to two specifications of committing indecent acts, one specification of attempting to produce child pornography, two specifications of wrongfully making an indecent visual recording, and one specification of receiving, viewing, and possessing child pornography, in violation of Articles 80, 120, 120c, and 134, UCMJ.

All of the offenses were committed after Dinger entered a retired status following the completion of 20 years of enlisted service in the active component of the Marine Corps. The military judge sentenced Dinger to confinement for nine years and a dishonorable discharge, and the convening authority suspended all confinement in excess of 8 years in accordance with a pretrial agreement.

Writing for the panel Judge Rugh explains that:

By act of Congress, the appellant was subject to the UCMJ when he committed the offenses. Art. 2(a), UCMJ (“The following persons are subject to this chapter . . . . Retired members of a regular component of the armed forces who are entitled to pay. . . . [and] Members of the Fleet Reserve and Fleet Marine Corps Reserve.”).

Slip op. at 4 (link to Article 2).

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