Today, our military criminal defense attorney takes a look at a recent case with a seemingly strange assertion (and the appeal that repaired it).
This past Friday, Army Specialist (E-4) Nathan Wilson successfully appealed a ruling that declared him guilty of housebreaking in 2013. The decision concludes a long process to undo an earlier judicial ruling on Wilson’s case that essentially declared a fence could be considered a structure worthy of a housebreaking charge.
Here’s the full story:
In October 2013, Wilson and an accomplice attempted to steal batteries from a locked motor pool at Fort Moore (Fort Benning), Georgia. Their intent was to gather as many batteries as possible out of the motor pool and sell them to a scrap yard. They climbed over the motor pool fence as the gate was locked with a chain.
The motor pool itself is a fairly routine parking area—it’s essentially a concrete lot surrounded by a fence. Within the motor pool are several legitimate structures, but Wilson and his accomplice never broke into the buildings (nor intended to). The relevant facts to this case are simple: Wilson never broke any locks, opened any doors, or climbed through any windows, nor entered any structure.
When caught, Wilson was found guilty of two charges: larceny (for prior theft charges), and housebreaking. While he pleaded guilty to larceny, Wilson objected to the housebreaking charge and motioned to be found not guilty, as he never actually broke into any structures. The motion was denied.
THE ISSUE AT HAND
The issue that Wilson argues is vital—he’s not arguing that he didn’t unlawfully enter the motor pool. He’s arguing that the open-air motor pool shouldn’t be considered a structure as he never entered any buildings or bypassed any locks to get in.
When Wilson appealed to the Army CCA, his appeal was denied. However, the CAAF agreed to hear his case and rule on “[w]hether the military judge erred in denying the defense motion for appropriate relief under Rule of Court-Martial 917 where the military judge improperly applied Article 130, housebreaking, to a motor pool.”
Article 130 specifically limits housebreaking to the entering of a dwelling or structure. The Manual for Courts-Martial states that a structure could be anything that is “composed of parts purposefully joined together.” The initial ruling would indicate that a fence counts as a structure of parts joined together.
However, Judge Ryan, who ruled on the appeal, rejects that a fence could be meaningfully considered a “structure” under such a definition. She notes that broadening the definition of structure to include anything made of individual parts joined together would also include LEGO structures—which would be ludicrous.
THE IMPORTANCE OF APPEALS IN MILITARY JUSTICE
One might question why Wilson bothered appealing a housebreaking charge if he already pleaded guilty to larceny. The practical answer is because every verdict affects a person’s future, so fighting erroneous charges is vital. The principled answer is because Wilson was correct—he should never have been charged with housebreaking. If he (or his defense attorney) had not pursued an appeal, Judge Ryan may never have had a chance to bring clarity to a confused ruling.
And Wilson may never have been able to remove a crucial mark of guilt from his criminal record.
If you feel that a mistake was made regarding your case, you could be right. Call our military criminal defense lawyer today at (866) 361-4723 to speak about your case in a free, confidential consultation.