The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is a federal code of laws that was enacted by the US Congress to define the military justice system. It also lists criminal offenses according to military law.
According to the federal statute, the President of the United States, who is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, must write rules and regulations that implement military law. The president writes the rules and regulations via an executive order called the Manual for Courts-Martial or MCM.
MCM provides the details for rules and regulations for military court martials and provides maximum punishments for all military offenses listed in the UCMJ.
About Military Court Martials
Military court martials are the most serious sanctions under the UCMJ. A court martial conviction is the same thing as a federal conviction and may result in jail time (with hard labor) or a punitive discharge, which can be a dishonorable discharge. The convicted also can receive fines and a rank reduction.
There are three levels of military court martials:
Which court martial a member of the military receives depends upon how severe the offense is.
About Summary Court Martials
These are fairly rare in modern times. Only enlisted personnel can be tried via summary court martial. This type is similar to a nonjudicial punishment or Article 15 proceeding. It can however result in a conviction at the federal level.
A commissioned officer presides over summary court martials, and usually has a pay grade of O-3 or higher. There is no jury. Other than in the Air Force, there is not a requirement to provide the accused with counsel, although a lawyer is normally allowed.
The maximum punishment in a summary court martial is:
- Confinement for 30 days
- Forfeiture of ⅔ pay for 30 days
- Reduction to lowest pay grade – E-1.
About Special Court Martials
A special court martial may be brought against all personnel charged with any offense under the UCMJ. Special court martials are reserved in most cases for medium grade offenses.
Special court martials have a military judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys and a jury of a minimum of three members of the military. If the accused is enlisted personnel, he may demand that ⅓ of the jury be enlisted. The accused also may ask that the jury be dismissed and to be tried by the judge.
Maximum punishment in a special court martial is:
- 12 months confinement
- Forfeiture of ⅔ pay for one year
- Reduction to lowest pay grade – E-1
- Bad conduct discharge from the military
About General Court Martials
A general court martial is the most severe of the three types and is reserved for crimes such as robbery, murder and rape. Anyone in the military can be charged under a general court martial.
A general court martial features a military judge, the accused, prosecuting and defense lawyers and a jury of at least five members. As with a special court martial, if the accused is enlisted personnel, he can request that ⅓ of the jury is enlisted. He also can dismiss the jury and be tried by the judge if he wishes.
For special and general court martials, the accused may be represented by a civilian lawyer at his own expense.
A general court martial may impose any sentence allowed under the UCMJ, including death.
About Article 15 Nonjudicial Punishments
Nonjudicial punishments are the most common proceeding under the UCMJ. If someone in the military commits an offense under the UCMJ, the commanding officer can offer proceedings under Article 15, which is referred to as nonjudicial punishment.
Nonjudicial punishment is referred to as ‘mast’ in the Navy and Coast Guard, and ‘office hours’ in the Marine Corps.
Article 15 is similar to a summary court martial. The only difference is that the commanding officer is judge and jury, and what happens does not result in a criminal record. Except at sea on ship, military members do not have to accept an Article 15 proceeding; he can demand trial by court martial.
Most military experts warn that unless you know you are innocent and can prove it, it is unwise to turn down Article 15. If you are found guilty under a court martial, the punishments are much worse.
Under Article 15, you have a number of rights:
- To be told of your right to remain silent, per Article 31 of the UCMJ.
- Be accompanied by an attorney or another party to speak for you. YOu do not have to have a military attorney to go with you to an Article 15 hearing, and one will not be made available to you.
- Be told of the evidence related to your alleged offense.
- Be allowed to look over all evidence that your commanding officer is relying upon.
- To present a defense orally or in writing.
- Have witnesses come to the proceeding if they are available.
- Have the proceeding open to the public unless there is cause for it to be closed.