If you're a Marine, you may know non-judicial punishments as "office hours." For sailors, they use the terms "captain's mast" or just "mast." Those in the Army or Air Force refer to non-judicial punishments as an "Article 15." No matter what branch of service you’re in, you likely know that a commanding officer may administratively discipline troops for minor offenses.
The "Article 15" moniker used by soldiers and airmen is the most specific, as it alludes to Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Article 15, combined with the Manual for Courts-Martial, is the law that empowers commanding officers to carry out a non-judicial punishment in lieu of a court-martial.
Who Can Impose a Non-Judicial Punishment?
In the Air Force and Army, a non-judicial punishment ("NJP") can only be carried out by a commanding officer. This means that only an officer on actual orders designating him or her as a commander can impose a NJP. In the Marine Corps and Navy, a NJP may be imposed by an "officer in charge." The naval term "officer in charge" means a specific officer who has been designated as such by an officer with general court-martial authority.
What is a Non-Judicial Punishment?
A NJP is a procedure in which the commanding officer or officer in charge may:
Thus a NJP is not a trial or a conviction and, if punishments are not carried out, not an acquittal.
What is a Minor Offense?
So what exactly constitutes a "minor offense?" This distinction has proven to be a controversial area of military law. Ultimately, determining if an offense is "minor" is a matter of discretion for a commanding officer or officer in charge.
For illustration's sake, the term "minor offense" typically means misconduct less serious than a summary court-martial. (The maximum punishment for a summary court-martial is 30 days confinement.) The nature of the offense and the circumstances surrounding its commission should be determining factors, according to Article 15 of the UCMJ and Part V of the Manual for Courts-Martial. Put another way, the term "minor offense" ordinarily does not include misconduct punishable by dishonorable discharge or confinement for more than a year.
There are two basic types of misconduct dealt with in military law -- crimes and disciplinary infractions. Crimes (handled via court-martial) involve grave offenses such as rape, murder, aggravated assault, robbery, etc. Disciplinary infractions, meanwhile, often are more administrative in nature. Infractions (think disobedience of military orders, disrespect to military superiors, and traffic violations) typically are handled via a NJP. Again, this is not an exhaustive list.
Remember, there is a lot of deference given to commanding officers. The military has taken the position that the final determination on whether an offense is "minor" lays within the sole discretion of the commanding officer.
Examples of Non-Judicial Punishments
Maximum penalties for a NJP vary widely depending on the rank of the accused and that of the officer imposing punishment. Here are two general examples:
If the officer imposing punishment holds general court martial authority, an officer accused of misconduct can be subject to:
For enlisted members accused of misconduct, meanwhile, commanding officers or officers in charge can impose:
An accused service member has the right to avoid an Article 15 by demanding a trial by court-martial in lieu of NJP. If such a demand is made, the NJP proceedings must be terminated, at which point the commander must decide whether to proceed with a court-martial.
An accused service member also has the right to appeal the imposition of a NJP for being unjust or disproportionate to the offense. The appeal must be in writing and forwarded to the next superior authority via the officer who imposed punishment. Finally, the imposition of a non-judicial punishment does not rule out a subsequent court-martial for the same offense. As you can see, this is a complex area of military law.
If you’re facing a NJP or a court-martial, you should speak to an attorney to protect your rights. You will normally have free access to a military defense attorney, but you should also consider retaining a civilian attorney specializing in military law. For more information on this, see FindLaw’s article on hiring civilian attorneys for military matters as well as FindLaw’s lawyer directory to find a civilian attorney near you that specializes in military law.
Contact a qualified military law attorney to help you with military-related issues.