United States service members are invaluable for our country and the world. They can sacrifice a lot while serving in the military, including their physical health and time with family. Service members are also subject to more laws than most of their civilian counterparts. Military members must follow all civilian laws, but they are also required to follow the Articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Violating these articles can result in severe punishments, including imprisonment and the termination of their military career.
What Is the Uniform Code of Military Justice?
The UCMJ is a collection of regulations and rules that all members of the United States military must abide by. It governs the military justice system and was enacted in 1951 by Congress. It created a uniform legal system that governs all the branches of the military—prior to the UCMJ, all branches of the military had their own set of regulations for their members to follow. Not only were the rules and regulations different between the branches, but they also changed during peacetime and wartime. The UCMJ created a set of rules for all active-duty service members, as well as National Guard and Reserve members, military academy students, and some civilians. Congress periodically makes changes to the UCMJ through legislation, typically as a part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
The UCMJ is comprised of 146 articles that cover a diverse range of offenses and subsequent punishments. Articles 1 through 76 primarily pertain to administration and procedure under the UCMJ. Articles 135 through 146 are also procedural articles. Articles 77–135 are the more commonly discussed articles, as they are the punitive articles. Some of the more common punitive articles include:
- Article 86 – Absence Without Leave (AWOL): This article covers failure to appear at your place of duty or leaving your assigned post without permission from your commander.
- Article 92 – Failure to Obey an Order or Regulation: The military is a different environment than civilian jobs; severe penalties can be administered if you fail to adhere to applicable military regulations.
- Article 120 – Rape and Sexual Assault: This article states that a service member who sexually assaults, rapes, physically abuses, or threatens to physically abuse another person with groping, sexual contact, or unwanted sexual advances can be charged.
- Article 134 – General Article: This article covers a wide range of different crimes of gross negligence and moral turpitude. A few examples covered by Article 134 include animal abuse, child endangerment, negligent discharge of a firearm, and adultery.
This very brief list of punitive UCMJ articles covers articles that are both incredibly specific and very broad. It is important to understand the rules and regulations that you are meant to follow. Ignorance of an article is not a valid defense against an accusation of a UCMJ violation.
Types of Accusations
Depending on the severity of the charge, the service member may be given an Article 15 or have their case progress directly to a formal court martial. An Article 15 punishment is a non-judicial punishment that does not result in a criminal record, but it can still carry severe penalties. These punishments can include a reduction in pay for a set period, an oral reprimand or admonition, extra duty for a set period, and/or a reduction in rank. If given an Article 15, you have the right to refuse the punishments and have your case heard during a court martial.
If the violation you are accused of committing is more severe, you will not be offered an Article 15. Your case will instead progress straight to a formal court martial, similar to a civilian court trial.
Fighting a UCMJ Violation Accusation
Like a civilian fighting an accusation of breaking a law, a military member or other person that is subject to the UCMJ can fight the accusation. Unfortunately, the military typically takes the stance that the accused and charged are guilty until proven innocent, and the penalties can be extremely severe. For this reason, fighting a UCMJ violation charge is incredibly important.
For some charges, the military will provide a JAG lawyer to represent the service member through the legal process. However, it is typically beneficial to consult with a civilian lawyer that has experience defending military members accused of the same violation that you are.
Q: What Is Article 15 of the UCMJ?
A: Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice allows commanders to administer non-judicial punishment. Commanders use Article 15s to promote discipline and good order in their ranks without escalating the issue to a trial by court martial. The punishment for an Article 15 is typically much lower than the service member would be given during a court martial for the same offense.
Q: Should I Accept an Article 15?
A: When a military member accepts an Article 15, they forfeit their right to a trial by court martial. Accepting the Article 15 is not admitting guilt. It instead allows the commander to determine guilt or innocence. Although there are punishments associated with guilt during an Article 15, they will not show up on a criminal record. Choosing to accept an Article 15 or progressing to a court martial trial is an important decision that is best made after consulting with an attorney.
Q: Is the UCMJ Federal Law?
A: The Uniform Code of Military Justice is federal law. It was enacted by Congress in 1951 to create uniform rules and regulations for members of all United States military branches to follow. With the UCMJ, Congress set forth the scope and jurisdiction of military law. It also listed the crimes punishable by military law.
Q: What Is Non-Judicial Punishment?
A: Non-judicial punishment (NJP) is a type of punishment that a military member or other person subject to UCMJ may receive in lieu of a court martial. If the accused accepts an Article 15, their punishment will have no effect on their civilian criminal record. It allows commanders to administer punishment for a minor offense, such as reporting late for duty or disobeying standing orders.
Know Your Rights
Members of the military can face two types of punishment: Article 15 or a court martial. The specific circumstances of your case will determine how you should best approach it and the most effective way to combat any potential negative outcomes. Aaron Meyer Law can be a powerhouse in your corner during your legal proceedings, offering informed advice and support during this difficult time. Reach out to us today to schedule a consultation.