An Army lieutenant colonel who trained future officers will receive a reprimand but serve no jail time for spying on a changing room with a hidden camera at a store that caters to teenagers and young adults.
Army Lt. Col. Jacob J. Sweatland served as chair of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA when he was arrested for hiding a camera in a dressing room in a PacSun clothing store that was discovered by a teenage girl.
Military legal experts say the case is the latest example of the military justice system letting senior officers off with a slap on the wrist for serious sex-related offenses. Though the store was off-base, the local prosecutor stepped aside from the case in order to let the Army prosecute Sweatland. A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office called the offenses “outrageous and indefensible invasion of privacy.”
A military judge sentenced Sweatland to be reprimanded at a Jan. 22 special court-martial at Fort Knox, Kentucky as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, said Ian Ives, a spokesman for U.S. Army Cadet Command.
Sweatland pleaded guilty to one specification of indecent visual recording and one specification of conduct unbecoming an officer under Articles 120c and 133 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Ives told Task & Purpose.
“A Military Judge often has a range of punishments available in a guilty plea,” Ives said. “The accused has the right to submit matters in extenuation and mitigation to the Military Judge during a pre-sentencing hearing. After considering all the evidence presented by the government and defense, the Military Judge sentenced Lt. Col. Sweatland to be reprimanded.”
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In September 2022, a teenage girl found a small device with a camera inside a dressing room at a PacSun clothing store in Pismo Beach, California, the San Luis Obispo Tribune reported. Sweatland was arrested two days later when he went to the store to retrieve the device. He initially ran from police before being apprehended.
“Upon notification of Lt. Col. Sweatland’s arrest, U.S. Army Cadet Command removed him from his Professor of Military Science position at California Polytechnic State University,” Ives said. “He is currently assigned to the 8th Brigade of U.S. Army Cadet Command and is serving in an administrative role away from cadets.”
Ives declined to say why Sweatland was referred to a special court-martial rather than a general court-martial. In the military justice system, special courts-martial deal with the equivalent of misdemeanor offenses in civilian courts, while general court-martials are the usual venue for more serious crimes.
“We cannot comment on the details of the pre-trial agreement,” Ives said.
The case was referred to court-martial before the Army and other services had established Offices of Special Trial Counsel to prosecute service members accused of sexual assault and other serious crimes, Ives said.
Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military justice reform, has long been troubled by the military’s unwillingness to prosecute serious crimes and light sentences that have been handed out by military judges, said Josh Connolly, the group’s senior vice president.
Connolly told Task & Purpose that he is puzzled why the military approved a plea agreement for Sweatland instead of prosecuting him when the facts of the case appear so straightforward.
“For all parties to have agreed to this plea agreement, which does seem non-proportional to the offense, it does give me concern,” said Connolly, who served as chief of staff for former Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)
The case underscores how poorly the U.S. military prosecutes sexual assault cases, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel VanLandingham, a former judge advocate and law professor at Southwestern Law School.
“The laughable administrative slap on the wrist of a reprimand – it’s worse than him not being court-martialed at all,” VanLandingham told Task & Purpose.
VanLandingham criticized the prosecutors and military judge in the case as well as Sweatland’s command for approving a plea agreement that only gave him a reprimand, adding that if he had been tried in California, he would likely have received at least a year in jail.
Sweatland initially faced charges in civilian court, but the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s office dismissed charges against him so that the Army could adjudicate the case.
When asked about the case’s outcome at court-martial, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he did not have enough context to adequately comment about Sweatland’s sentence.
“While we are not aware of what mitigating information may have been provided by Lt. Colonel Sweatland at his court-martial, the outrageous and indefensible invasion of privacy of placing a video recording device in the changing room of a retail store certainly calls for a stern response,” Assistant District Attorney Eric J. Dobroth told Task & Purpose on Monday. “Without knowing the true in-life impact of his reprimand, we cannot sufficiently comment. Suffice to say, Lt. Colonel Swetland’s guilty plea and admission highlights his personal acceptance of accountability.”
Sweatland was commissioned in July 2005 by the Army ROTC program at Ball State University in Indiana, according to U.S. Army Cadet Command. He initially served as an armor officer before transitioning to psychological operations in 2011.
He deployed to Iraq twice, once to Afghanistan, and once to Colombia, and his military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Ranger Tab, and Parachutist Tab.
Task & Purpose was unable to reach Sweatland for comment despite attempts to contact him by phone and email. Ilan Funke-Bilu, who represented Sweatland in civilian court, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune last year that Sweatland was suffering from mental illness that was directly linked to his deployments.
The fact that the judge in this case approved a plea agreement that allowed Sweatland to get just a reprimand shows that the military’s justice system is so structurally flawed that the Justice Department should adjudicate all military cases instead, VanLandingham said.
“This judge is not required to approve that PTA [pretrial agreement]; that ridiculous, disproportionate PTA,” VanLandingham said. “If the agreement is clearly unreasonable, the judge can reject it. Why the hell the judge didn’t reject it here – that’s part of the problem. These judges are part of the military culture, and I don’t think they’re sufficiently objective and independent to be rendering sentences.”
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