Comment by:
Shannon Gurwitch

40 Campbell L. Rev. 205 (2018)

INTRODUCTION

On August 18, 2011, Army Specialist Christopher Blackett and his roommate, Army Private First Class Sebastian Gamez, were arrested on charges of first-degree murder and disposing of a corpse.1  The soldiers’ arrests followed statements they made to Blackett’s Section Sergeant, Lavern Sellers, and later to their Company First Sergeant, Rebecca Schlegelmilch, regarding the shooting death of their seventeen-year-old next-door neighbor, Vincent Carlisle.2  Blackett’s spontaneous confession to Sellers precipitated the search for the teenager,3 whose body was found in a wooded field just inside the Harnett County line.4  Following their initial statements to Sellers and Schlegelmilch, Blackett and Gamez also made statements about the shooting to deputies with the Harnett County Sheriff’s Department and later the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department.5  After law enforcement discovered Carlisle’s body, the Harnett County District Attorney secured grand jury indictments against both Blackett and Gamez.6

Largely relying on the North Carolina Court of Appeals decision in State v. Davis,7 Blackett and Gamez filed motions to suppress certain unwarned, incriminating statements, including those made to Sergeant Sellers and First Sergeant Schlegelmilch, asserting that the statements were obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona.8  In Davis, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the defendant, a marine corps private, was subjected to custodial interrogation under Miranda when he made incriminating statements to his Platoon Commander, Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer (CW3) Kenneth Lee Brown.9  In reaching this determination, the Davis Court stated that, “[T]he trial court was required to determine whether defendant’s statements were the result of ‘questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after [defendant had] been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.’”10  Based upon its understanding of Brown’s authority under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the court concluded that CW3 Brown was a law enforcement official within the meaning of Miranda.11  According to the court—and contrary to Brown’s testimony—Brown was a commissioned officer who possessed the authority under military regulations to order those under his command into arrest or confinement.12  The court reasoned that such authority was “sufficient to invoke the protections of Miranda.”13

The rule in Davis, if strictly construed, limits Davis’s applicability to cases where a commissioned officer with the authority to arrest or confine conducts questioning.  Blackett’s and Gamez’s reliance on Davis was problematic because neither Sergeant Sellers nor First Sergeant Schlegelmilch were commissioned officers possessing the authority to order an inferior into arrest or confinement.14  The distinction between the facts of Blackett’s and Gamez’s cases and the facts in Davis serves as the impetus for this Comment.

When servicemembers commit crimes, their first statements are often to their military superiors.  This reality raises the questions of whether and under what circumstances unwarned, incriminating statements made by servicemembers to military superiors are the product of custodial interrogation under Miranda and United States v. Tempia15 and, thus, must be excluded from a criminal trialBlackett’s and Gamez’s cases are illustrative of the circumstances under which a servicemember’s incriminating statements made to military superiors might be used against that servicemember in a criminal case prosecuted by civilian authorities.  Furthermore, they demonstrate how a general lack of understanding regarding military rank and corresponding authority, as provided under the UCMJ, might result in the erroneous reliance of a military defendant on Davis’s authority when challenging the admissibility of incriminating statements made to a military superior.

Blackett forewent a hearing on his motion and entered into a plea agreement with the Harnett County District Attorney on August 23, 2016.16  An order denying Gamez’s motion was entered on January 4, 2017.17  Whereas Davis demonstrates a lack of understanding by the court regarding military rank, authority, and culture, Blackett’s and Gamez’s motions to suppress demonstrate an equal lack of understanding on the part of their defense about how Davis operates.18  This, in turn, raises the question of whether the reasoning applied in Davis establishes a reliable rule for future defendants who will look to that decision in support of their motions to suppress statements made to their military superiors.  Would the application of military law under Article 31 provide civilian courts with a more easily ascertainable and inherently fairer standard upon which to base their determination of whether a servicemember’s rights were violated?

Military servicemembers assigned to duty stations within North Carolina, like Blackett and Gamez, exist within two separate environs.  The first is the United States Armed Forces, which have distinct rules for conduct and behavior and whose regulations provide protections against self-incrimination under Article 31 of the UCMJ19 and Tempia.20  The second is civilian society, in which the United States Constitution provides protections against self-incrimination under the Fifth Amendment as articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States in Miranda.21 The overarching issue that this Comment addresses occurs at the intersection of these two environs.

Writing for the Davis Court, Judge Geer stressed the importance of considering “the realities and necessities of military life” when determining whether a servicemember has been subjected to custodial interrogation within the meaning of Miranda.22  Ironically, the court ultimately adopted a rule that applies Miranda’s protections only when a servicemember has made statements to a superior who is also a commissioned officer.  This oversight leaves servicemembers such as Blackett and Gamez, who make statements to superior non-commissioned officers, unprotected against the inherently coercive atmosphere that pervades the military environment.

This Comment seeks to determine whether Davis represents the best means of protecting servicemembers against involuntary self-incrimination while leaving both the military’s interests in maintaining order and discipline and the government’s interests in prosecuting criminal offenders intact.  If it does not, then what is the most effective means to preserve all interests simultaneously?  To that end, Part I provides an overview of the historical evolution of the rights afforded to servicemembers as related to the right against unwarned self-incrimination.  Next, Part II presents the North Carolina Court of Appeals’s application of Miranda protections in Davis.  Finally, Part III evaluates the Davis Court’s application of the rule extending Miranda to servicemembers and presents an alternative approach.  This Comment concludes with a recommendation that North Carolina courts look to the rules and teachings of their military counterparts to determine whether a soldier’s rights have been violated, thus avoiding a misapplication of the law due to a lack of understanding of military society and culture.          

 

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