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The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)

Gavel at rest

The UCMJ is federal law, enacted by Congress. The UCMJ defines the military justice system and lists criminal offenses under military law.

The law requires the President of the United States, acting as commanderin- chief of the Armed Forces, to write rules and regulations to implement military law. The President writes these rules and regulations by issuing an executive order known as the Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM). The MCM details rules and regulations for military court-martials and provides for maximum punishments for each military offense listed in the punitive articles of the UCMJ.

Military court-martials

Military court-martials are the most severe sanctions under military law. A court-martial conviction is the same as a federal conviction and can (depending on the offense) result in jail time (at hard labor) or a punitive discharge, such as dishonorable discharge, as well as fines and reductionin rank.

Military court-martials come in three levels:

  • Summary
  • Special
  • General

The level chosen usually depends on the severity of the offense and the rankof the accused.

Summary Court-Martials

Summary court-martials are relatively rare these days. Only enlisted personnel may be tried by a summary court-martial. A summary court-martial is very much like nonjudicial punishment (Article 15) proceedings, except it canresult in a federal conviction.)

A commissioned officer (usually in the pay grade of O-3 or above) presides over summary court-martials; there is no panel (jury). Except in the Air Force, there is no requirement to provide the accused with a defense lawyer (although a lawyer is usually allowed).

The maximum punishment that can be imposed by a summary court-martial includes

  • Confinement (or hard labor without confinement) for 30 days
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month
  • Reduction to the lowest pay grade (E-1)

Tips: In a case where the accused is above the pay grade of E-4, a summary court-martial may not impose confinement, hard labor without confinement, or reduction except to the next lowest pay grade.

Special Court-Martials

A special court-martial has jurisdiction over all personnel charged with any UCMJ offense. Special court-martials are generally used to try offenses of medium severity.

Special court-martials are composed of a military judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and a panel (jury) of at least three military members. If the accused is an enlisted member, he can demand that at least a third of the panel be enlisted members. (Otherwise, the panel usually consists of commissioned officers and warrant officers.) The accused can request todismiss the panel and be tried by a judge alone if he wishes.

The maximum punishment that may be imposed by a special court-martial includes a combination of

  • Confinement for 12 months
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for 12 months
  • Reduction to the lowest pay grade (E-1)
  • A bad conduct discharge

General Court-Martials

A general court-martial is the most severe of the military court-martial types and is generally reserved for the most serious offenses, such as murder, rape, or robbery. A general court-martial has jurisdiction over all personnel charged with any UCMJ offense.

A general court-martial includes a military judge, the accused, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and a panel of at least five members. As with a special court-martial, if the accused is an enlisted member, he can request that at least a third of the panel be comprised of enlisted members. The accused can also choose to dismiss the panel and be tried by judge alone.

Tip: For both special and general court-martials, the accused can elect to be represented by a civilian attorney at his own expense, if he wishes.

A general court-martial may impose any sentence (including death) authorized by the Manual for Courts-Martial (for the offenses that the accused is foundto have committed).

Nonjudicial Punishment: Article 15

Nonjudicial punishment is, by far, the most common type of proceeding under the military justice system. If a military member commits an offense covered by the UCMJ, the commanding officer may decide to offer him proceedings under Article 15. This is commonly referred to as nonjudicial punishment.

Nonjudicial punishment is often called mast in the Navy and Coast Guard, and office hours in the Marine Corps.

Article 15 proceedings are very much like a summary court-martial, except the commanding officer acts as judge and jury, and the proceedings do not result in a criminal record. Except aboard a ship at sea, military members do not have to accept nonjudicial punishment proceedings. They can turn down the Article 15 and demand trial by court-martial instead.

Warning: Unless you're innocent of the offense and know you can prove it, it's not usually a smart idea to turn down Article 15 and demand trial by court-martial. If you're found guilty by a court-martial, the possible punishments are muchmore severe, and you have a life-time criminal record.

Under Article 15, you have the following rights:

  • Be informed of your right to remain silent under Article 31 of the UCMJ.
  • Be accompanied by someone to speak on your behalf. However, there is no requirement that a military lawyer be made available to accompany you to the hearing. In fact, most nonjudicial punishment proceedings do not include military attorneys.
  • Be informed of the evidence against you relating to the offense.
  • Be allowed to examine all evidence upon which the commanding officer will rely in deciding whether and how much nonjudicial punishment to impose.
  • Present matters in defense, extenuation, and mitigation, orally, in writing, or both.
  • Have witnesses present if they're reasonably available. A witness is reasonably available if his appearance won't require reimbursement by the government, unduly delay the proceedings, or, in the case of a military witness, necessitate his being excused from other important duties.
  • Have the proceedings open to the public unless the commanding officer determines that the proceedings should be closed for good cause.

The commanding officer acts as sole judge and jury. If she determines that you did commit the offense(s) alleged, then the punishment imposeddepends on the rank of the accused and the rank of the commanding officer.

If your commanding officer is in grades O-4 or above, the maximum punishment may be

  • Written admonition or reprimand (which may affect future promotions or assignments)
  • Confinement on bread and water or diminished rations —imposable only on grades E-3 and below, attached to or embarked in a vessel, for not more than three days (U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps only)
  • Correctional custody (kind of a jail) for not more than 30 days
  • Forfeiture of not more than half of one month's pay per month for two months
  • Reduction of one grade, not imposable on E-7 and above (Navy, Army, and Air Force) or on E-6 and above (Marine Corps)
  • Extra duties for not more than 45 days
  • Restriction to the base or a specific area for not more than 60 days

If the punishment is imposed by a commanding officer in grades O-3 and below, possible punishments are

  • Admonition or reprimand
  • Confinement on bread and water or diminished rations — not more than three days and only on grades E-3 and below attached to or embarked in a vessel (U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps only)
  • Correctional custody for not more than 7 days
  • Forfeiture of not more than 7 days of pay
  • Reduction to next inferior pay grade; not imposable on E-7 and above (Navy, Army, and Air Force) or E-6 and above (Marine Corps), if rank from which demoted is within the promotion authority of the Officer in Charge (OIC):
  • Extra duties for not more than 14 days
  • Restriction for not more than 14 days

From Basic Training for Dummies, copyright © 2011 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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