A 3-2 divided Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) recently decided the case of U.S. v. Gleason, finding that an accused cannot be charged with a novel specification under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) if the same criminal violation can already be described in the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), and vice versa. As such, the CAAF found that the Army Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) erred by affirming a “novel” specification already described in Article 134. In addition to issuing the CAAF majority’s opinion on the matter, dissenting opinion of uncommon length, detail, and skepticism was also released alongside it.
Gleason’s charge in question was dismissed given the conflict and the sentencing related to that specific charge or specification was set aside. The case has been remanded and now pends further proceedings if any are to follow.
HOW CRIMINAL OFFENSES ARE DESCRIBED IN MILITARY LAW
Within Article 134 of the UCMJ, criminal violations are sorted into three broad descriptions:
- Those that disrupt order and discipline in the Armed Forces.
- Those that defame the Armed Forces.
- Those that are noncapital crimes and offenses.
In addition to the UCMJ, the Manual for Courts-Martial describes in further detail offenses, violations, actions, and behaviors that can be interpreted as an Article 134 violation. Examples of some of these specific violations found only in the MCM are adultery and obstruction of justice, of which the latter of the two will play a key role in the U.S. v. Gleason CAAF review. Even further, there exist “novel specifications” that can be used to describe any other potential offense, given that it can be sorted into the aforementioned descriptions.
Of note, the MCM also describes what violations cannot be prosecuted under Article 134. It states specifically that “if conduct […] does not fall under any of the […] Article 134 offenses, a specification not listed in [the MCM] may be used to allege the offense.” In 2017, the CAAF interpreted this statement as a way to block the use of “novel specifications” to allege an Article 134 offense if that offense can already be described using other language in Article 134.
DETAILS OF GLEASON’S CASE & CAAF OPINIONS
Gleason was charged with adultery, various forms of assault, and the “novel specification” of interfering with an emergency call. Reportedly, Gleason prevented his alleged victim from calling the police by taking her cellphone out of her control after he assaulted her. The act of removing her cellphone was interpreted as conduct that disrupted good order, defamed the Armed Forces, and constituted an obstruction of justice but was charged as “interfering with an emergency call.” It is this seeming overlap of violation descriptions that conflict of the case begins and ends.
In the CAAF’s decision, the three Judge majority found that Gleason’s behaviors could be adequately and reasonably described as an “obstruction of justice” under MCM guidelines. As such, it was determined to be erroneous to apply a “novel” specification to the case and charge it merely as interfering with an emergency call. Indeed, the majority explained in its opinion that the Government had sidestepped justice through this misclassification in that it no longer had to prove crucial elements of an obstruction of justice charge.
However, the minority Judges of the CAAF argued that the interpretation of an “obstruction of justice” was stretched beyond reasonable definitions. Within the dissenting opinion given alongside the ruling, it is argued that an accurate description of Gleason’s actions does not fall within what is prohibited under Article 134. If that was held as true, then there would have been no conflict among charges. The dissenting opinion also argued that the burden of proof was not lessened with the “interfering with an emergency call” but instead changed, as the Government still had to prove the alleged act.
Lastly, the dissenting opinion argues the CAAF majority ruled based on determinations reached by the end of the trial, not based on the facts presented at its beginning. In so many words, the dissenting opinion accused the majority of using a form of circular logic in that the conclusion validates the origination validates the conclusion validates the origination and so on and so forth.
WHAT TO LEARN FROM THE CAAF’S SPLIT DECISION
The result of the U.S. v. Gleason shows that the CAAF remains careful not to extend too much power to military prosecutors and courts. In checking that power by demanding an accurate description of the accused’s alleged behaviors – and related that to how it can be described in Article 134 and the MCM – the CAAF has put more responsibility on the Government when it comes to deciding and proving charges. The more leeway there is to describe and assign charges, the more likely there will be a wrongful conviction.
(You can view the full ruling and dissenting opinion of U.S. v. Gleason by clicking here and loading a PDF file from the official CAAF website.)