ACCA released its unanimous opinion in United States v. Sanchez, siding with the government and affirming the conviction and sentence.
Sanchez opinion here.
In Sanchez, ACCA clarified that under RCM 907 (as revised in 2016), an unconditional guilty plea waives a later claim that the pleaded-to specification fails to state an offense.
I. Background and Procedural History
As a drill sergeant, SSgt Angel M. Sanchez sexually abused trainees and committed various other offenses. At his original trial in 2014, a military judge convicted him of numerous specifications charged in violation of Articles 92, 93, and 120, and acquitted him of several specifications in charged in violation of the same Articles. Sanchez was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge, confinement for twenty years, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and reduction in grade to E-1.
Sanchez’s case has a relatively complex procedural history, and this opinion is ACCA’s fourth. Since 2017, Sanchezhas bounced back and forth between ACCA and CAAF several times. In 2019, ACCA issued its third opinion in the case, finding Hukill error. The court set aside Sanchez’s conviction on all ten Article 120 specifications, and authorized a rehearing. At the rehearing, Sanchez pleaded guilty pursuant to a PTA to three Article 120 specifications; the government dismissed the remaining seven Article 120 specifications. The military judge resentenced Sanchez on these three specifications alongside the surviving Article 92 and 93 specifications, and imposed a sentence of dishonorable discharge, reduction in grade to E-1, and fifty-four months’ confinement.
II. Sanchez’s Claims on Appeal
Sanchez made a single claim on appeal: that one of the Article 120 specifications to which he pleaded guilty at both the original trial and rehearing failed to state an offense. Specifically, Sanchez argued that Specification 7 or Charge I failed to allege the element of “touching” because it alleged only that Sanchez “plac[ed] himself between [the victim’s] legs while in a closet.”
ACCA held that Sanchez’s unconditional guilty plea waived his claim, and that, even if Sanchez could escape waiver, his claim failed on the merits.
ACCA began its analysis by noting that, prior to 2016, claims that a specification failed to state an offense were nonwaivable under RCM 907. However, the President amended RCM 907 in 2016 to clarify that failure to state an offense was a non-jurisdictional, waivable error. RCM 907(b)(2)(E). Accordingly, Sanchez’s unconditional guilty plea waived his claim for failure to state an offense.
In making this determination, the court took care to clarify that the rule in RCM 907 was procedural rather than substantive, and distinguished (and partially overruled) an old ACMR case, United States v. Lilly, which had suggested that procedural rules on rehearing would “be the same as at the original trial.” ACCA also noted that RCM 905(e)(2), which exempts motions to dismiss for failure to state an offense from those that must be made “before the court-martial is adjourned,” does not speak to the question of whether such claims are waivable. Finally, the court emphasized that “[s]ecuring a favorable pretrial agreement via a guilty plea, and then on appeal attacking the facial legality of one of the specifications, is inconsistent with the fair and efficient administration of justice.” The court also admonished practitioners to litigate such claims early in the court-martial process.
ACCA also held that Sanchez’s claim failed on the merits. Given that Sanchez challenged the specification for the first time on appeal after having pleaded guilty to it, ACCA applied the Watkins/Turner “maximum liberality” test, finding that the specification included every element of the offense of abusive sexual contact. Specifically, ACCA found that while it was technically possible to “place” oneself in between another’s legs in a closet without touching, a more “natural” reading of the specification implies a touching. To the extent that there was any ambiguity, ACCA held that was resolved against the defendant given that he admitted to a touching at both the rehearing and in his stipulation of fact.
Finding both that Sanchez waived his claim and that it failed on the merits, ACCA affirmed the guilty finding and sentence.
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