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Preemption Doctrine is Newly Limited by CAAF in U.S. v Wheeler

The Preemption Doctrine of military law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) acts as a limitation to Article 134, UCMJ. The first clause of the Preemption Doctrine states that Article 134 does not have the authority to prohibit actions that are “already prohibited by Congress in UCMJ articles 78 and 80-132.” United States v. Wright (5 MJ 160 [CMA 1978]) has provided a test to determine if an offense or action in question is limited or is intended to be limited by Congress. The action should be seen as “already prohibited” if Congress limits prosecutorial reactions due to preexisting legal definitions within the UCMJ, or the action is an amalgamation of other actions defined as offenses under the UCMJ.

CAAF Limits View & Use of Preemption Doctrine

The United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) has placed new limitations on the scope of the preemption doctrine in its conclusion of United States v. Wheeler (MJ No. 17-0456/AF). In particular, the CAAF judges ruled unanimously that the preemption doctrine is limited to cases involving an Article 134, Clause 3 federal offense. The decision is expected to lessen the evidentiary burden the prosecution must uphold when taking a case to trial.

The CAAF’s decision on U.S. v. Wheeler concluded the appellant’s previous conviction and sentencing under the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA). It determined the conviction approved on charges of coercion and enticement of a minor (18 U.S.C. § 2422(b)) should not be considered as preempted under Article 120b(c) definitions as it did not find the federal charges were filed to try to sidestep the offense as defined under Article 120b.

Important Details of U.S. v. Wheeler

After pleading not guilty to his charges, Staff Sergeant Wheeler was still found guilty by the presiding court and convicted. He had been charged with “attempting to commit a lewd act upon a person he believed to be a child” (Article 80, UCMJ) and another charge for trying to coerce the perceived minor into a sexual act “through the use of interstate commerce,” which is defined under Title 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b) and Article 134, UCMJ. Sentencing penalties used against Wheeler included confinement exceeding two years, rank reduction, forfeiture of property, and dishonorable discharge from the United States Armed Forces.

He attempted to get the Title 18 violation in particular dismissed, claiming Article 120b preempted it, which would trigger exclusion under the Preemption Doctrine. Despite the preexisting understandings of the Preemption Doctrine, the military judge did not approve Wheeler’s motion to dismiss. When the ruling was moved up to the Air Force CCA through appeals, it affirmed the judge’s decision and stated a problem not addressed by the UCMJ was brought up through the Title 18 offense definition.

Implications of the CAAF’s Decision to Uphold Lower Court Rulings

It should be noted that the CAAF’s agreement with both the Air Force CCA and the initial ruling judge puts restrictions on the Preemption Doctrine. It also clearly states that Article 120b(c) cannot be legally compared to Title 18 U.S.C. § 2422(b), especially when the attempt to do so would feasibly dismiss charges or overturn a prior ruling. The ruling statement written by the CAAF concluded with a clear definition of the Preemption Doctrines purposes, saying that it “prohibits application of Article 134 to conduct covered by Articles 80 to 132 […]” The resulting decision for the Wheeler case being there was no preemption since federal charges were not created to “circumvent an element of an enumerated offense in the UCMJ […]”

For more information about the Preemption Doctrine and Article 134, you can click here to view its entirety in a PDF file provided by the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. If you require the assistance of a military criminal defense attorney for a case of your own, you can contact Attorney Joseph L. Jordan and his law firm. He has dedicated his career to defending the rights and reputations of military service members from all branches of the Armed Forces and who are stationed all across the globe. You can learn more about his experience and abilities by browsing recent case results or calling his firm at (888) 616-6177 to request a consultation.