The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) recently submitted a unanimous decision to conclude the case of U.S. v. Coleman. The decision itself weighs not just on that particular case, but also on many other military criminal justice cases since it directly addressed the question of multiplicity. The CAAF held that Coleman’s case had not been subjected to unjust multiplicity in that the charges and convictions for “attempted murder with a firearm” and “willfully discharging a firearm under circumstances to endanger human life” were similar yet distinctly separate due to elements unique to either one. As such, Coleman’s convictions continue to stand.
DETAILS OF COLEMAN’S CASE & MULTIPLICITY
In criminal justice settings, multiplicity occurs when a single criminal violation is erroneously charged more than once. This can happen if the same charge is applied twice or more for a single action, or if a single action is met with multiple, different charges that each describe that same, singular action.
In Coleman’s case, he was accused of discharging his firearm at a car that contained three people, including a three-year old girl. For that single act of shooting at the vehicle, he was charged and ultimately convicted of attempted murder with a firearm and willfully discharging a firearm under circumstances to endanger human life. Coleman and his defense argued the charges constituted multiplicity, as they claimed either one of the charges alone could describe his alleged actions in full, without the need of including the second charge at all.
However, both the Army Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) and the CAAF disagreed, ruling that the charges were not multiplicious due to elements within each of them that made them unique enough for the case at hand. In the CAAF decision, Judge Ohlson described how the Court concluded that multiplicity had not occurred in Coleman’s case. It was admitted that Coleman had only carried out one single act that constituted a criminal violation, but it was also explained that there was no Congressional or legislative statute that demanded the two charges brought against him to never be used concurrently. In other words, if two or more applicable statutes exist to describe a crime and each has its own unique element, then both or all should be used.
The CAAF found that the burden of proof required in both charges were different enough from one another to eliminate any chance of multiplicity. The offense of willfully discharging a firearm under circumstances to endanger human life requires only that a firearm was discharged intentionally. The charge of attempted murder with a firearm requires evidence of specific intent to commit a murder. Given that the burden of proof was satisfied for both charges, both were permitted, as were their resulting convictions.
WHAT THE COLEMAN DECISION MEANS FOR SERVICE MEMBERS
The key takeaway from the CAAF’s decision of U.S. v. Coleman can be summed up as: The military criminal justice system will not hesitate to apply as many charges as possible to a criminal case or court-martial. Under the ruling, multiplicity is difficult to prove, tipping the scales out of the defendant’s favor. Therefore, when facing multiple yet similar charges, a service member must prepare their case as if all will be allowed to stand. That is to say, it is unsafe to assume multiplicity will grant clemency or relief.
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