In July, 16 Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton were arrested while about 800 other military service members joined in a battalion formation. The commanding officer of the battalion asked the Marines to come forward and held a red folder, which is usually used in ceremonies to award service members. Instead of awarding them, though, the commanding officer instructed Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) members to arrest them. Eight more Marines were pulled from the formation afterward to be detained elsewhere.
A few months later in November, though, the show of military might was ruled unlawful by a military judge, dampening the prosecution’s future chances. In particular, the mass arrest was determined to be a form of unlawful command influence, or an intentional act from a commanding officer that will likely influence future court-martial or other military criminal proceedings.
WHY THE MARINES WERE ARRESTED
The 16 Marines were arrested in front of their battalion on charges of human trafficking and related drug crimes, having been accused of participating in a conspiracy to move undocumented immigrants throughout the country.
Just weeks before the mass arrest, two Marines were arrested near the U.S.-Mexico border with undocumented immigrants in their vehicle. The immigrants told investigators they had paid the service members thousands of dollars to bring them safely to Los Angeles and across the country. It is assumed further information from the immigrants and possibly the arrested Marines implicated the 24 other Marines who were arrested at Camp Pendleton.
Although, the validity of the implications is certainly in question. NCIS investigators have stated that no further evidence has been successfully gathered that suggests the Marines were participating in a human and drug trafficking conspiracy.
HOW A MASS ARREST BECOMES UNLAWFUL COMMAND INFLUENCE
According to other Marines who witnessed the mass arrest while in battalion formation, the commanding officers called the arrested Marines a “cancer.” This statement alone may be enough to constitute unlawful command influence. The words and actions of a commanding officer are always chosen intentionally because it is understood that service members, especially those lower on the chain of command, will see them as truth or an order to be followed. To call the arrested Marines a “cancer” is a strong enough condemnation to cast them in a guilty light before they ever had a chance to defend themselves.
Furthermore, arrested all of the Marines in front of a battalion is also an affront to the military criminal justice system. The mass arrest created a spectacle out of the accused, parading them in front of their brothers-in-arms to be judged. Given that the Marines could have been detained in private and separately while on Camp Pendleton, it can be safely assumed that the mass arrest was planned to embarrass and shame them, while also serving as a warning to other Marines.
Interestingly, a YouTube video posted by The San Diego Union-Tribune (see resource links below) has many comments that label the Marines as convicted criminals despite only having just been arrested in the footage. One of the top-liked comments simply states, “Getting what they deserve.” The comments serve as a clear example of how people, whether they are a service member or a civilian, instinctively trust commanding officers and view them as a type of “judge and jury” in such situations.
As confirmed by the military judge who found the mass arrest unlawful, the only way to reach justice fairly and correctly is to do so through proper channels free from undue influence. By labeling the arrested Marines as a cancer and putting them on display, the possibility of them receiving a fair trial or court-martial fell away by the wayside. Anyone tasked with reviewing the Marines’ cases in the future would understandably have a difficult time remaining unbiased due to the sharp imagery of the mass arrest being fresh in their mind, along with the pointed words of the commanding officers.
JUDGE’S RULING DISMANTLES PROSECUTION’S CASE
Military Judge Colonel Stephen Keane, who ruled the mass arrest as unlawful command influence, gave prosecutors only a few weeks to return with a counterargument. In the first week of December, prosecutors announced that most of the charges against most of the Marines had been dropped. The announcement comes as an unofficial, unstated admission that there was no justifiable reason for the mass arrest, further cementing it as an act of undue command influence.
The charges that do remain will trigger administrative cases separate from the military court system. As such, Marines could face administrative penalties as severe as being discharged from the service, but they would not be arraigned on any criminal charges related to the incident.
Reportedly, 13 of the Marines have already submitted pretrial agreements for lessened penalties, which have been approved. Six Marines also reportedly pled guilty in court-martial, and four are still facing serious criminal charges. The details of those charges are not known at this time. It is also not clear if the eight Marines arrested separately from the initial 16 will have their cases altered due to the unlawful command influence ruling from Military Judge Keane.
NEVER OVERLOOK UNLAWFUL COMMAND INFLUENCE
The underlining takeaway from the Marines mass arrest story is that unlawful command influence is real, prevalent, and, perhaps most importantly, something that can be challenged. The defense attorneys representing the Marines recognized how the commanding officers tampered with the military criminal justice system, called them out on it, and brought it to the attention of the military courts. With an honest review of the situation, the military judge recognized the undue command influence as well, folding the prosecution’s efforts early before the case could develop and get out of hand.
In other words, the military criminal justice system is more than capable of recognizing injustices and correcting them. It is a system that can be used to the advantage of the defendant, ensuring they are given a fair chance at trial or court-martial. The key is knowing how to challenge the prosecution and utilize the full extent of military law to favor the defendant, which is why it is so important for any military service member accused of a criminal violation to always use the services of an experienced defense lawyer.
PROTECTING THE RIGHTS & REPUTATIONS OF THE MARINES
Military Criminal Defense Attorney Joseph L. Jordan proudly represents and protects United States Marine Corps members who have been accused of serious crimes and violations. With decades of experience as a defense lawyer, a former Army JAG Officer, and a former prosecutor at Fort Hood, he has the insight and knowledge needed to spot weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, including when unlawful command influence tilts the scales of justice to one side. When you are feeling cornered by criminal charges and accusations, fight your way out with Attorney Jordan.
Our law firm represents military service members from around the world and in all branches of the United States Armed Forces. Tell us about the charges you are facing today by dialing (866) 266-9381 or using an online contact form.