CORE CRIMINAL LAW SUBJECTS: Defenses: Generally

2015 (September Term)

United States v. Sterling, 75 M.J. 407 (to establish a prima facie RFRA defense, an accused must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the government action (1) substantially burdens (2) a religious belief (3) that the defendant sincerely holds; if a claimant establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the government to show that its actions were the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest; in this case, because appellant failed to establish a prima facie case, the burden did not shift to the government in this case). 

(to establish a prima facie RFRA defense, an accused must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the government action (1) substantially burdens (2) a religious belief (3) that the defendant sincerely holds; if a claimant establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the government to show that its actions were the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest; in this case, because appellant failed to establish a prima facie case, the burden did not shift to the government in this case). 

(while religious conduct triggers a RFRA inquiry, RFRA only protects actions that are sincerely based on a religious belief; determining sincerity is a factual inquiry within the trial court’s authority and competence, and the claimant’s sincerity in espousing that practice is largely a matter of individual credibility). 

(courts are highly deferential to claimants in evaluating sincerity, but may still conduct meaningful reviews of sincerity). 

(in evaluating sincerity, a court may not question whether the petitioner correctly perceived the commands of her faith, nor does a court differentiate among bona fide faiths).

(within the meaning of the RFRA, a substantial burden exists where a government action places substantial pressure on an adherent to modify her behavior and to violate her religious beliefs). 

(to determine whether a prima facie case has been established, courts do not question whether the petitioner correctly perceived the commands of her faith). 

(while a court will not assess the importance of a religious practice to a practitioner’s exercise of religion or impose any type of centrality test, a claimant must at least demonstrate an honest belief that the practice is important to her free exercise of religion in order to show that a government action substantially burdens her religious exercise). 

(a substantial burden is not measured only by the secular costs that government action imposes; the claimant must also establish that she believes there are religious costs as well, and this should be clear from the record). 

(a burden is not substantial if it merely prevents the adherent from either enjoying some benefit that is not otherwise generally available or acting in a way that is not otherwise generally allowed; moreover, an inconsequential or de minimis burden on religious practice does not constitute a substantial burden, nor does a burden on activity unimportant to the adherent’s religious scheme). 

(courts must take adequate account of the burdens a requested accommodation may impose on nonbeneficiaries). 

(an option to request an accommodation may eliminate burdens on religious exercise or reduce those burdens to de minimis acts of administrative compliance that are not substantial for RFRA purposes). 

(while appellant’s posting of signs at her workspace, which stated that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper,” was claimed to be religiously motivated at least in part and thus fell within the RFRA’s expansive definition of “religious exercise,” appellant nonetheless failed to identify the sincerely held religious belief that made placing the signs important to her exercise of religion or how the removal of the signs substantially burdened her exercise of religion in some other way, and thus appellant was not entitled to the RFRA defense at her court-martial proceedings for violating the order to remove the signs). 

United States v. Bess, 75 M.J. 70 (it is undeniable that a defendant has a constitutional right to present a defense). 

(whether rooted directly in the Due Process Clause or in the Compulsory Process or Confrontation clauses of the Sixth Amendment, the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense). 

(the right to present a defense has many aspects; under the Compulsory Process Clause, a defendant has a right to call witnesses whose testimony is material and favorable to his defense; a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him is violated where it is found that a trial judge has limited cross-examination in a manner that precludes an entire line of relevant inquiry; in addition, the Constitutional right of a defendant to be heard through counsel necessarily includes his right to have his counsel make a proper argument on the evidence and the applicable law in his favor). 

2014 (September Term)

United States v. Torres, 74 M.J. 154 (an accused cannot be held criminally liable in a case where the actus reus is absent because the accused did not act voluntarily, or where mens rea is absent because the accused did not possess the necessary state of mind when he committed the involuntary act). 

(automatism is defined as action or conduct occurring without will, purpose, or reasoned intention, behavior carried out in a state of unconsciousness or mental dissociation without full awareness, and the physical and mental state of a person who, though capable of action, is not conscious of his or her actions; automatism is sometimes referred to as an unconsciousness defense). 

(in the military justice system, neither epilepsy nor automatism has been held to be a mental disease or defect; therefore, the affirmative defense of lack of mental responsibility under RCM 916(k)(1) is not applicable in those instances). 

(in cases where the issue of automatism has been reasonably raised by the evidence, a military judge should instruct the panel that automatism may serve to negate the actus reus of a criminal offense).  

2013 (September Term)

United States v. MacDonald, 73 M.J. 426 (a defense is reasonably raised when some evidence, without regard to its source or credibility, has been admitted upon which members might rely if they chose).  

2009 (September Term)

United States v. Maynulet, 68 M.J. 374 (it is well settled in civil and military law that mistake of law is generally not a defense to criminal conduct; RCM 916(l)(1) provides that ignorance or mistake of law, including general orders or regulations, ordinarily is not a defense; there are a few narrow exceptions to the general rule; one such exception exists when the mistake results from reliance on the decision or pronouncement of an authorized public official or agency; however, reliance on the advice of counsel that a certain course of conduct is legal is not, of itself, a defense; in civilian practice, this defense is more generally stated as a reasonable reliance upon an erroneous official statement of the law). 

 

(in a defense of entrapment by estoppel situation, the government is rightly barred from obtaining a conviction because the government - through its representatives acting in an official capacity - is responsible for the defendantís inability to know that his conduct was proscribed; in this case, there was no evidence in the record to support a claim that there was an official decision, pronouncement, or interpretation, later determined to be erroneous, upon which appellant could have reasonably relied or that could have formed the basis of a claim of estoppel).

 


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