Air Force Appellate Court Sets Aside Guilty Plea Over Sex Offender Registration

Some convictions at court-martial can carry certain collateral consequences. For example, domestic assault convictions will trigger Lautenberg limitations on gun ownership and possession. Convictions for offenses considered felonies at the state level can strip a convicted servicemember of the ability to vote or own weapons. Convictions for sex offenses usually leads to registration as a sex offender.

Some of these consequences result from federal law or regulations and apply to all convicted at courts-martial. Others are state requirements and will depend upon the state the convicted servicemember resides in. Sex offender registration is a mix of both federal and state requirements. When a servicemember is convicted of a sex offense at court-martial, there are three different aspects of registration requirements to be aware of. First, federal law (34 U.S.C. Sec. 20901, et seq.) requires mandatory sex offender registration for those convicted of offenses listed in the statute. Second, DoD Instruction 1325.7 identifies the offenses that will trigger a requirement for the military to notify state and local officials when a servicemember is convicted of one. Third, states have individual requirements concerning which offenses trigger registration and what the terms of that registration are.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces determined a decade ago that in order for a guilty plea to a sex offense to be considered knowing and intelligent, the accused had to know the consequences of that plea. Defense counsel are required to notify an accused before he pleads guilty that the offense will require registration. Military judges are also required to discuss it with the accused before accepting a guilty plea. Military defense counsel are not required to know all of the state laws concerning registration, but they must notify the accused in writing when the federal law or DOD Instruction mandates registration or reporting and that states may have further requirements.

In the case of United States v. Lara, decided this week, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals found that SSgt Lara’s pleas of guilty to attempting to view child pornography and willful dereliction of duty for viewing adult pornography on his government computer were not knowing and intelligent because he was misinformed about his sex offender registration requirements.

Although his defense counsel provided him a written notification that he might be required to register, at trial the military judge told SSgt Lara that DoDI 1325.7 did not require registration. The trial counsel agreed with this statement and the defense counsel also told the military judge that this was correct. It appears that the attorneys all confused the DoDI requirement for the military to report convictions with the federal law requirement for who has to register. SSgt Lara WAS required to register under the federal law but his offenses were not included in the offenses in the DoDI requiring reporting to the state.

Upon his release from confinement, SSgt Lara was informed that he did have a federal obligation to register. He based his appeal on this fact, arguing that he would never have pled guilty if he had known that he would have to register at the federal level. He had believed that he would only be subject to state requirements and could pick which state to move to based upon those requirements. A federal registration meant that he would suffer the consequences of registration no matter where he lived.

The Air Force court agreed that the military judge misinformed SSgt Lara about his registration requirements. It further found that this misinformation made SSgt Lara’s pleas invalid and set his guilty findings aside. The case will now be returned to the Convening Authority for a new trial as though the first proceeding never occurred.

If you or your loved one is facing a court-martial or wants to appeal a court-martial conviction, you need someone with experience who knows the law. I have the experience you need. Please call Bill Cassara at (706) 445-2943 for a free consultation.

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