An appeals court cannot take judicial notice of an element of the offense

The CAAF has decided United States v. Paul, 74 M.J. ___ (C.A.A.F. May 29, 2014)(CAAFLog case page).  The granted issue was:

WHETHER THE AIR FORCE COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS ERRED WHEN IT TOOK JUDICIAL NOTICE OF AN ELEMENT OF A CHARGE IN VIOLATION OF GARNER v. LOUISIANA, 368 U.S. 157 (1961) AND MILITARY RULE OF EVIDENCE (MRE) 201(c).

BLUF:  We conclude that the evidence presented at trial was not legally sufficient to support a conviction for using 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine in violation of Article 112a, UCMJ. We further hold that the CCA erred in taking judicial notice of a missing element of the crime charged.

The first step in CAAF’s analysis was to decide that – yes – the evidence was legally insufficient for the finding of guilty. CAAF discussed and affirmed the obvious, that the trial counsel had failed to have evidence admitted showing the underlying drug which comprised the ecstasy in this case was on the controlled substances lists.  “In short, the Government’s evidence did not make the essential connections among ecstasy, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, and Schedule I.”  Slip op. at 8.

The court then turns to the judicial notice issue and immediately “affirm[s] that an appellate court can take judicial notice of law and fact under certain circumstances.”  Slip op. at 10.  The court cites to a SCOTUS case, the Rules Advisory Committee Notes, and its own case of United States v. Williams, 17 M.J. 207 (C.M.A. 1984).

The court states the problem that AFCCA “took the “extraordinary step” of taking judicial notice of an element not proven by the Government.”  Slip op. at 11.  Such a step is error and is not justified because there was a failure of notice and opportunity to be heard and the AFCCA judicially noted an element of the offense. Id.

CCA’s and CAAF may still take appellate judicial notice.  Future litigation, if trial counsel continue to fail will likely be focused on what the court means with the statement:

a CCA might generally take judicial notice of an undisputed fact or question of domestic law that is important to the resolution of an appellate issue, it cannot take judicial notice of facts necessary to establish an element of the offense.

Similar to what the court said thirty years ago in Williams:

Judicial notice is a procedure for the adjudication of certain facts or matters without the requirement of formal proof. It cannot, however, be utilized as a procedure to dispense with establishing the government’s case.

The court relied heavily on the due process issue and Williams.  Williams was a case where the government failed to introduce or get judicial notice of a regulation banning the sale of marijuana.