Opinion Analysis: CAAF insists that Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) does not mean what it says (and creates a new basis for suppression), in United States v. Perkins
CAAF decided the certified Marine Corps case of United States v. Perkins, 78 M.J. 381, No. 18-0365/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on April 23, 2019. Selectively reading Mil. R. Evid. 311 (which codifies various rules for evidence obtained as the result of an unlawful search or seizure), a majority of the court holds that Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3)(B) does not mean what it says, repudiating the recent unanimous decision in United States v. Hoffmann, 75 M.J. 120 (C.A.A.F. 2016) (CAAFlog case page), that applied the rule as written, and reinvigorating the not-quite-unanimous United States v. Carter, 54 M.J. 414, 421 (C.A.A.F. 2001), that held that “the phrase ‘substantial basis’ has different meanings, depending on the issue involved.” Accordingly, assuming that the search authorization in this case was issued without a substantial basis for finding probable cause, CAAF nevertheless applies the good faith exception even though Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3)(B) requires more, affirming the published decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA.
Judge Maggs writes for the court joined by all but Judge Ohlson, who dissents.
The Judge Advocate General of the Navy certified two issues, both on behalf of the defense:
I. Whether this Court’s holding in United States v. Carter as applied by the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in this case, instead of the plain reading of MRE 311(c) this Court applied in United States v. Hoffman, controls in analyzing the applicability of the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule.
II. Whether the military judge erred in denying a defense motion to suppress evidence obtained from a search of Appellant’s home.
Sergeant (E-5) Perkins was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of members with enlisted representation, of conspiracy to commit larceny and violation of a general order, and sentenced to reduction to E-1 and a bad-conduct discharge. The conspiracy conviction was supported by evidence of stolen military property found in the garage of Perkins’ on-base home. CAAF’s review focuses on the search authorization that gave military investigators access to that garage.
Perkins was in a relationship with a woman who alleged to military law enforcement that Perkins extorted her with nude photos and videos taken without her consent. She told military investigators that she never actually saw Perkins take a picture or video of her, but she said she once saw him use his cell phone during sexual activity and she also claimed that he had other electronic devices in his home capable of storing pictures and videos. Based on that information, and knowing that Perkins was out of town and had his cell phone with him, military investigators sought and received a search authorization to search Perkins’ home for other devices. Perkins’ commanding officer issued the authorization and agents searched Perkins’ home where they found no illicit pictures or videos, but instead found military property that eventually led to Perkins’ conviction of the conspiracy and orders violation.
At trial, Perkins moved to suppress the evidence seized from his home on the basis that the search authorization lacked probable cause, was unconstitutionally vague, and was insufficiently particular. The military judge denied the motion. On appeal, however, the Navy-Marine Corps CCA agreed with Perkins that there was no probable cause to search his home, concluding (in a published opinion) that there was no substantial basis for the commander who authorized the search to conclude that there was a fair probability that investigators would find illicit images or videos in the house. In particular, the CCA found that the woman’s allegation of extortion “did not provide probable cause to search [Perkins’] home.” United States v. Perkins, 78 M.J. 550, 557 (N-M Ct. Crim. App. 2018) (link to slip op.). Nevertheless, the CCA affirmed admission of the evidence by applying the good faith exception.
As a general rule, law enforcement must obtain a search warrant – or, in the military, a search authorization – prior to conducting a search, and the warrant must be based on probable cause. If that doesn’t happen, the remedy is exclusion of any evidence discovered. Exclusion is a judicially-created rule in the civil courts but it is codified for courts-martial as Mil. R. Evid. 311. Section III of the Military Rules of Evidence actually codifies a wide variety of judge-made law regarding search and seizure (unlike the Federal Rules of Evidence, which do not contain similar codification), and the military rules include many military-specific applications.
The civil courts also recognize – and the military rules codify – a good faith exception to the exclusionary rule based on the conclusion that there is no justification for the practical cost of excluding evidence of guilt when a law enforcement officer “is acting as a reasonable officer would and should act in similar circumstances.” United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 920 (1984). See also Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3). In other words, because the purpose of excluding unlawfully-obtained evidence is to incentivize law enforcement to follow the law, if law enforcement got a warrant and reasonably relied on the warrant, but the warrant was flawed, then law enforcement acted in good faith and there is no bad conduct to be deterred by excluding the evidence.
The good faith exception codified in Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) applies only when three conditions are met:
(A) the search or seizure resulted from an authorization to search, seize or apprehend issued by an individual competent to issue the authorization under Mil. R. Evid. 315(d) or from a search warrant or arrest warrant issued by competent civil authority;
(B) the individual issuing the authorization or warrant had a substantial basis for determining the existence of probable cause; and
(C) the officials seeking and executing the authorization or warrant reasonably and with good faith relied on the issuance of the authorization or warrant. Good faith is to be determined using an objective standard.
That second requirement, as written, doesn’t involve the officer conducting the search or seizure. Applying the plain language of Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3)(B), if an authorization is invalid and if there was no substantial basis for probable cause to issue it in the first instance, then the good faith exception does not apply no matter what the executing officer thought. That’s different from the test established by the Supreme Court in Leon.
CAAF, however, abandoned a plain-language application of Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) nearly 20 years ago, in United States v. Monroe, 52 M.J. 326, 332 (C.A.A.F. 2000). In that case, and with little discussion, CAAF applied the good faith exception as envisioned by the Supreme Court in Leon rather than as set forth in Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3). The following year, in Carter, CAAF explained why it did that:
[W]e conclude that Mil. R. Evid. 311(b)(3) [later moved to the current (c)(3)] does not establish a more stringent rule than Leon did for civilian courts. The first prong (a search warrant or search authorization issued by competent authority) is identical to the civilian rule. The second prong addresses the first and third exceptions noted in Leon, i.e., the affidavit must not be intentionally or recklessly false, and it must be more than a “bare bones” recital of conclusions. It must contain sufficient information to permit the individual executing the warrant or authorization to reasonably believe that there is probable cause. The third prong addresses the second and fourth exceptions in Leon, i.e., objective good faith cannot exist when the police know that the magistrate merely “rubber stamped” their request, or when the warrant is facially defective.
Carter, 54 M.J. at 421. Put differently, in Carter CAAF held that Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) is merely redundant with Supreme Court precedent, even though it is worded differently. Only Judge Sullivan expressed concern with that approach, decrying “the majority’s tortured construction of Mil. R. Evid. 311(b)(3).” 54 M.J. at 423 (Sullivan, J. concurring). He did not suggest following the rule as written, however, but instead quoted the 1992 concurring opinion of Judge Cox that “it is time to de-Manualize these provisions because people keep trying to ‘apply’ them, thinking they are rules.” 54 M.J. at 424 (quoting United States v. Lopez, 35 M.J. 35, 45 n.3 (C.A.A.F. 1992) (Cox, J. concurring)).
Nevertheless, Mil. R. Evid. 311(c)(3) remained a rule – though not one CAAF was willing to actually follow – until Hoffmann, where then-Judge Stucky wrote for a unanimous CAAF (that included Senior Judge Lamberth of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, who sat by designation), distinguished Mil. R. Evid. 311(b)(3) as the military good faith exception, and applied it as written to suppress child pornography due to the absence of a substantial basis for finding probable cause for the search. 75 M.J. at 128. By recognizing Mil. R. Rvid. 311(c)(3) as the military good faith exception, Hoffmann seemingly reversed the holding of Carter that only the judge-made rule from Leon applies.
Now, with its opinion in Perkins, CAAF reconciles Hoffmann and Carter, unequivocally disregards the rule as written, and concludes that “the NMCCA properly followed our decision in United States v. Carter, 54 M.J. 414 (C.A.A.F. 2001), when applying M.R.E. 311(c)(3).” Slip op. at 2.