In United States v. Grady, No. 20-14341 (Nov. 22, 2021) (Branch, Grant, Ed Carnes), the Court affirmed defendants’ convictions and sentences for conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property, and trespass.
Defendants, members of the Plowshares Movement–equipped with spray paint, bolt cutters, hammers, blood, banners, crime scene tape, Go-Pro cameras, and others tools–illegally entered the Kings Bay naval base, intending to engage in symbolic disarmament as part of their faith. They spray-painted numerous anti-nuclear and religious messages at various locations inside the base, poured bottles of human blood at various locations, taped an “indictment” outlining their complaints to a door of one of the buildings, defaced various monuments within the base, and entered restricted areas to hang banners protesting the morality of nuclear weapons and pray. They were arrested and indicted on charges of: conspiracy; destruction of property on a naval installation; depredation of government property; and trespass.
All defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, arguing that their prosecution violated the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (“RFRA”). Specifically, they asserted that their actions at the Kings Bay naval base were “in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs that nuclear weapons are immoral and illegal,” and the government’s prosecution of them substantially burdened their religious exercise in violation of RFRA. They maintained that, under RFRA, the government could not show that the decision to charge the defendants was the least-restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests in the safety and security of the base. The district court denied their motion.
On appeal, this Court affirmed the district court. The Court first noted that the only prong of the RFRA analysis in dispute was the fourth prong: whether the government met its burden of demonstrating that criminal prosecution of the defendants was the least-restrictive means of furthering its significant compelling interests in the safety and security of the naval base, naval base personnel, and naval base assets. In order to be a viable least-restrictive means for purposes of RFRA, the proposed alternative needs to accommodate both the religious exercise practiced in this case—unauthorized entry onto the naval base and destructive actions, including spray painting monuments, doors, and sidewalks, pouring human blood on doors and other areas, hammering on a static missile display, hanging banners and crime scene tape, as well as removing and partially destroying signage and monuments around the naval base—and simultaneously achieve the government’s compelling interests in the safety and security of the naval base, naval base assets, personnel, and critical operations. The Court found that the defendants failed to proffer a least-restrictive means that would simultaneously accommodate their religious exercise while protecting the government’s compelling interests, as was their burden to proffer.
The Court further held that the district court did not err in holding the defendants jointly and severally liable for the full amount of restitution. Because the losses in question resulted from acts which were part of the conspiracy, the district court had the authority to hold all defendants jointly and severally liable for the full amount of restitution.
The Court also held that the district court did not err in denying a reduction for acceptance of responsibility to the defendants. The defendants argued that they went to trial only because of their RFRA defense, and maintained that they never denied engaging in the conduct in question. But the Court held that the district court did not clearly err in finding that neither defendant had clearly demonstrated acceptance of responsibility because they continued to deny the illegality of their actions and put the government to its burden of proof. Additionally, because the district court made a Keene finding, any error in denying acceptance of responsibility would have been harmless.
The Court also held that the district court did not err when it used the total damages amount to enhance one defendant’s base offense level under U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1)(C). The Court found that the evidence at trial supported the enhancement.
The Court also held that the district court did not err in failing to address one defendant’s RFRA-related sentencing argument in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).
Finally, the Court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in failing to give one defendant’s requested mistake-of-fact jury instruction. The government had to prove that the defendants acted consciously and deliberately, not that they knew or believed their actions were illegal. Therefore, because mistake of fact is not a valid defense, the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to give the requested instruction.