When you put on the uniform of the United States military, you take on increased responsibilities as you serve your country at home or abroad. Along with these additional responsibilities comes an entire body of laws and rules called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). While many of these laws and rules would likely be unconstitutional if applied to everyday citizens, such as laws prohibiting insubordination or fraternization, they apply to you while you’re serving in the military, given your special position and the mission of the armed services. This section covers some of the unique laws and procedures that apply to service members as well as how the military prosecutes crimes in its own judicial forum, known as a court-martial. After reading this section, you’ll have a better understanding of military criminal law and procedures and how they can affect you and your career.
In the civilian world, if you fail to show up for work, the worst that could happen is that you lose your job. However, in the military, this is a serious crime and can be punished with reductions in pay or rank, confinement, dishonorable discharge or, if it occurs in a combat zone, even the death penalty.
In this section, you will learn more about criminal laws in the military: those that are similar to laws in the civilian world, as well as those that are unique to the military. You’ll also learn about what evidence is needed to prove these crimes as well as their maximum penalties. In addition, this section explains the military’s current system of prosecuting sexual assault crimes and the resources that are available to victims.
Military Courts-Martial System
Often, where you face charges can be just as important as the charges themselves. Different rules and different rights apply in the military’s court-martial system. Unlike the civilian world, for example, a service member’s chain of command often has significant authority and discretion to determine whether he or she will face judicial punishment, administrative action (non-judicial punishment), or no adverse actions at all. This section will describe the different types of courts-martial along with recent legislative efforts, through the Military Justice Improvement Act, to modify the court-martial process.
Even if you don’t think you’ll face the military criminal law system during your career, it’s still important for you to know your rights as well as who can advocate on your behalf. Depending on your situation, you’ll likely have access to a free military lawyer, but you also always have the right to hire a civilian lawyer as well. There are civilian attorneys that specialize in military law who are often former military lawyers and are therefore familiar with military criminal law and procedures. These lawyers can be a significant asset to you, especially if they’re working in conjunction with a military lawyer assigned to your case.
This section contains additional resources and links to help guide you through the military criminal law process. Upon reviewing this section, you should have a better understanding of what crimes apply in the military and how they are prosecuted, as well as your rights in the process.
If you’re subject to a criminal investigation or criminal charges, it’s important to immediately speak with a military defense attorney or a civilian attorney who specializes in military law to ensure that your rights are protected.