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Appellate Court Decision Defines Interrogation Protections for Soldiers

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces recently ruled in a critical matter of constitutional rights and statutory provisions regarding remaining silent during interrogations. The decision, United States v. Evans, will likely affect numerous cases going forward in regards to defendants claiming self-incrimination and due process violations.

The Charges Against First Lieutenant Evans

In the time leading up to the charges against First Lieutenant Evans, peers and commanders had noticed that he had been wearing a Special Forces Combat Patch—a decoration that is reserved for Soldiers who saw combat in the Afghanistan theater. When Evans' battalion commander ordered an AR 15-6 investigation of Evans, it was found that he had never served in Afghanistan and was not authorized to wear the patch.

Evans fought that determination, though, and sought to provide dental x-rays that proved that he had been present in Afghanistan (and had received dental work there, at Bagram Air Field). Evans' direct supervisor, MAJ JH was directed to look into Evans' claims. He received two things. First he received x-rays to show that he allegedly received dental work in Bagram. Second, MAJ JH queried Evans with few brief questions and Evans provided an unsigned Memorandum for Record. This memo was provided in the confines of a conference room with no one else around. MAJ JH failed to read Evans his Article 31b rights prior to asking his few brief questions.

Evans was later charged and found guilty of larceny and two counts of providing false statements (one for the x-rays and one for the memorandum). However, Evans and his counsel appealed that ruling, asserting that he had never been made aware of his right to remain silent during his "interview" in the conference room with MAJ JH and moved to suppress the evidence against him in that interview. An appeals court found that Article 31(b) had been violated when Evans was questioned and dropped one count of providing false statements.

Understanding Article 31(b)

The Fifth Amendment protects all citizens and servicemembers from self-incrimination—it is the basis of the Miranda rights, AKA the "right to remain silent" until you have legal counsel present. However, UCMJ military law additionally provides Article 31(b), which serves a similar but more expansive purpose.

Article 31(b) provides: "No person subject to this chapter may interrogate, or request any statement from, an accused or a person suspected of an offense without first informing him of the nature of the accusation and advising him that he does not have to make any statement regarding the offense of which he is accused or suspected and that any statement made by him may be used as evidence against him in a trial by court-martial."

The Final Ruling

In its decision, The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces recognizes that there has been confusion between Article 31(b) and the Fifth Amendment in the past, but that the court had failed to provide a definitive distinction between them. With United States v. Evans, however, it strives to by recognizing the circumstances of the interrogation and affirming a four-part test conducted by the lower court for prejudice established by a prior case, United States v. Kerr.

The court unanimously rejected the notion that Evans’ constitutional rights were violated during this questioning with MAJ JH. They note that Miranda rights are reserved for individuals in custody and that Evans was free to leave the conference room and was not officially detained in anyway—he voluntarily entered the room with MAJ JH.

However, the court agreed with the lower appellate judges that, in one instance, Evans did suffer a statutory violation enforced by Article 31(b). Indeed, MAJ JH's line of questioning was relevant to accusations made against Evans and he should have been reminded of his statutory rights under Article 31(b). Under this finding, the unsigned memorandum provided by Evans should have been suppressed.

That finding, however, does not address the x-ray, which Evans voluntarily pursued and provided after learning of the AR 15-6 investigation's conclusions. The four-part test that the lower court conducted considers 1.) The strength of the government's case, 2.) The strength of the defendant's case, 3.) The materiality of the relevant evidence and 4.) The quality of the evidence in question. Under that test, the x-rays were considered of strong relevance and quality against Evans and the single providing false statements conviction against him was affirmed.

Conclusions

While the final ruling made little difference to the defendant in this case, the court's determination is significant. It would be presumptuous to suspect that MAJ JH acted maliciously towards Evans, but it is important to note that greater care should have been taken when he or she approached him for an interview. The allegations against Evans were potentially serious, and commanders everywhere must proceed carefully in these circumstances to ensure that—in the event that there is a criminal charge of any kind—due process is respected and a fair day in court can proceed.

If you are a military servicemember that's been accused of a criminal act, then we invite you to contact Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law today. Attorney Jordan is a 10+ year veteran of the U.S. Army who understands military justice system and has flown the world over to protect the rights of his clients.

It is possible to confront the allegations against you with confidence. Contact our firm today to start exploring your legal options.

Categories: UCMJ, Military Law News

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