Need to Know: These New UCMJ Laws Start Jan. 1

A gavel lays on the Uniform Code of Military Justice inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)
A gavel lays on the Uniform Code of Military Justice inside the 28th Bomb Wing courtroom at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., July 17, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Nicolas Z. Erwin)

A series of sweeping reforms and updates to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) kick in on Jan. 1, 2019, including the addition of some crimes, an expansion of victims' rights and standardizing the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers on some military bases.

Many of the changes, which stemmed in part from Joint Chiefs of Staff recommendations made in 2013, were ordered in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Put into policy early this year through an executive order from President Donald Trump, they bring what Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the 2017 NDAA process, called the "most significant reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice since it was enacted six decades ago."

How will the new laws affect troops? Here's a rundown:

Expansion of crimes

The law adds new acts to the list of crimes under the UCMJ and moves some crimes that had previously been considered under UCMJ's Article 134, known as the General Article, to their own article.

For example, a new criminal offense bars sexual relations between troops in recruiting or training roles and their recruits or trainees, regardless of consent.

An article barring "adultery" has been changed to "extramarital sexual conduct," while court-ordered legal separation has been added as an allowed defense against that charge.

Theft carried out by credit or debit card is moving from falling under "larceny" to its own article.

Both stalking and cyberstalking were newly added as crimes under their own articles.

Also newly considered a crime is any retaliation against those who witness or report a crime or gross waste, mismanagement or abuse of authority.

Standardizes DUI rules

The new rules lower the highest acceptable blood alcohol level for those driving on a military base to .08 from .10.

Most bases enforce a blood alcohol limit that is equal to the legal limit of the state in which the base is located. But in the past on bases which straddle two states, the base commander can select the enforceable limit, so long as it's no more than .10. The new .08 rule will directly affect those bases, bring these installations in line with a near nationwide limit of .08.

New investigative authorities

Under the changes, military judges have the newly added ability to issue warrants ordering service providers like Facebook to disclose the contents of electronic communications, such as online messages.

Military judges also will be able to act on cases before referring them to court martial, allowing them to order wiretaps or issue subpoenas earlier in the investigative process.

New victim protections

Any victim, regardless of the crime, can have an advocate or government counsel present during interviews, according to the new rules.

The rights of victims also are being expanded to include a legal guardian or judge appointment representative. This means that if a victim is underage or unable to represent his or herself, victim rights, including those for an advocate, extend to those who are representing on their behalf.

Changes to judges, panels

A new rule removes the option for the accused to pick either a panel, the military version of a jury, or a judge-only trial during a special court martial for certain crimes where the punishment is six months or less. Instead, the government will be allowed to choose which version is used in those cases. Crimes affected by this new rule could include being drunk on duty or disrespecting a noncommissioned officer, according to the Army.

Convicted troops also will now receive what's known as segmented sentencing, similar to sentencing rules used in civilian federal courts. Under this change, the accused can request a panel to decide sentencing or allow the military judge to make a ruling. If the judge issues sentencing, each offense will now be considered separately. The judge will also rule as to whether punishment will be served concurrently.

Another new law expands both the required panel size for special and general courts martial and the number of votes required to convict. Panel sizes will grow from three to four for special courts martial and five to eight for general courts martial, while a three-fourths vote will be required to convict. The ratio previously had been two-thirds.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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