Military Appellate Courts address “gross negligence” in the handling of classified materials in the 1995 case of United States v. Roller

In 1991, Marine Corps Sergeant Rickie L. Roller was an intelligence specialist responsible for “code word” and other classified materials that came into the intelligence division at Headquarters, USMC, in Washington D.C.  Like many other intelligence analysts, he worked in a sensitive compartmented intelligence facility (SCIF). SCIF’s themselves are secured buildings in which intelligence analysts can openly store classified material. This is possible because the whole building is secured and all of its occupants have clearances.

Over the course of several months, Sgt Roller accumulated classified materials he worked with in his desk. It appears from the record, that Sergeant Roller did not have a very good relationship with his supervisor, so he asked for a transfer. Around the same time, his supervisor preferred charges against him (that is, charged him some crimes) that were later dismissed. He got his transfer, and on his last day of work he packed up his belongings. Unfortunately, he was in a bit of rush and when he grabbed his personal belongings he also grabbed the classified material that was in his desk.

Several weeks later, he recognized his mistake and discovered the classified material at home. He decided that he would destroy the material when he got to his new duty station, but that was not to be. Instead, an employee from the moving company found the material while he was packing up Sgt Roller’s stuff for his cross-country move. Eventually, Naval Investigative Service was notified and got involved. Sgt Roller was ultimately charged with mishandling classified material in violation of the Espionage Act codified at 18 U.S.C. 793(f).

At trial, he pleaded guilty to an orders violation and a violation of 18 U.S.C. 739(f)(1) as assimilated by Article 134, UCMJ.

On appeal, the issue was whether that statute, which reads the same as it does today, requires that a third-party get a hold of the classified material in order for there to be criminal liability. The U.S. Navy-Marine Corps court of Military Review answered that question in the negative, but of interest is the fact that it called Roller’s inadvertent taking of the classified information “his own gross negligence.” Roller, 37 M.J. at 1096. There was no dispute that his mistake of scooping up the classified material with his personal belongings qualified as gross negligence.

As the Court of Military Appeals (the predecessor to the modern-day Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces) later explained in its decision affirming Roller’s conviction, “[t]he purpose of the federal espionage statute is to protect classified documents from any unauthorized procedures such as ‘removal from its proper place of custody’ . . .”  United States v. Roller, 42 M.J. 264 (C.M.A. 1995). In other words, the crime—as the name suggests—occurs when classified information is “mishandled.”

For this reason, a subjective belief that the lost information will be of actual harm to the United States—and indeed any intent to cause actual harm—is irrelevant to the commission of this crime.

Just ask Sergeant Roller. His mishandling of classified information landed him in the brig for 2 years.

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