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What are the Differences in Military and Civilian Court Cases?

Are you a military service member who has been accused of committing a crime? While certain activities are illegal under both martial and civilian law, the military has a different set of codes, processes, and penalties for dealing with crimes. If you’re facing a military trial, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the differences in military and civilian court cases so you know what to expect.

Civilian Laws vs. the Uniform Code of Military Justice

Criminal offenses under military law are defined by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Service members can be tried and convicted in a military court, also known as a court martial, under UCMJ rules. As a unified code, the UCMJ applies to most service members, including those serving in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy, regardless of where they’re stationed. This differs from civilian laws, which vary at the local, state, and federal levels.

Most crimes in the UCMJ violate both military and civilian laws, including robbery, sexual assault, murder, and others. However, some crimes only apply in the military, including:

Miranda Rights vs. Article 31 Rights

Perhaps no legal term is more widely recognized among the general public than Miranda rights. You may even be able to recite them from memory — “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

In the civilian legal system, people are read their rights while they’re being arrested or questioned after they are in custody. However, in the military, rights advisement is more proactive and protective than this. Article 31 of the UCMJ covers service members’ rights, and they are recited when the accused is being questioned by another military member.

Notably, the service member does not need to be in custody to trigger the rights advisement. This extra protection for military members stems from their training to obey the chain of command and prevents law enforcement from taking advantage of an accused member’s obedience to extract incriminating statements.

Civilian Court vs. Court Martial

The civilian court system is divided into two categories. Criminal court deals with unlawful activities, while civil court handles nearly all other disputes. A military member accused of a crime that violates both military and civilian law may be tried in a court martial, civilian court, or both. The accused may not be tried for the same misconduct by both military court and federal civilian court, but they can be tried by a military court and a state court.

Even so, crimes committed by service members are most often tried in military court. There are three types, depending on the severity of the crime and the maximum punishments allowed:

  • Summary courts martial are for minor crimes resolved under simple procedures. They do not require a military judge or attorney to be involved (though accused service members can certainly still hire one). If found guilty, penalties may include confinement for up to 30 days, hard labor for 45 days, forfeiture of pay, and reduced military rank.
  • Special courts martial are for misdemeanor crimes. A military judge presides, and three or more enlisted members determine the final verdict. Penalties for guilty parties may include confinement for up to one year, hard labor for up to three months, forfeiture of pay, reduced military rank, or bad-conduct discharge.
  • General courts martial are for more serious, felony-level crimes. A military judge presides, and five or more enlisted members determine the final verdict. Punishments may include confinement, forfeiture of pay, and dishonorable discharge. Life imprisonment and the death penalty are possible for the most egregious crimes.

Civilian Jury vs. Military Jury

Most people are familiar with civilian cases, which are heard and decided by a 12-person jury of your peers. Military juries work differently. Depending on the type of court martial, the jury—known as a panel — may consist of zero, three, or five members. The accused can also request to be tried by a military judge alone. Cases that could lead to the death penalty must be decided by a panel of 12 members. It’s also worth noting that panel members aren’t peers — they are commissioned officers ranked higher than the accused.

Unanimous Verdicts vs. Split Verdicts

In civilian cases, the jury must vote unanimously to deliver a conviction. Oregon and Louisiana, the last two states that allowed non-unanimous verdicts in criminal trials, revised their statutes earlier this year to align with a US Supreme Court decision in 2020 deeming non-unanimous verdicts unconstitutional.

However, the military is one jurisdiction that still allows for a split verdict in criminal trials. In most cases, a three-fourths majority is required for a conviction (up from two-thirds prior to 2019). Cases involving capital offense charges are the exception to this. When a death sentence is possible, all panel members must vote unanimously.

Civilian Appeals vs. Military Appeals

Under civilian law, appeals take place through the appellate court if the accused is not satisfied with the judgment. The military also allows appeals, but the process is different. Every branch of the military has its own appeals court that handles the situation. It’s also important to note that there is no option to appeal once a resolution is made in a death penalty case.

Civilian Attorneys vs. Military Attorneys

Civilian attorneys are trained in local, state, and federal laws. They may specialize in criminal or civil defense and gain expertise in such matters. However, because the legal code for civilians differs so greatly from the UCMJ, it’s essential to hire a lawyer experienced with military-specific offenses and litigation. After all, your military career, livelihood, and reputation could be at stake, so you want to work with the most knowledgeable lawyer possible!

That’s where Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law can help. Mr. Jordan is an accomplished trial lawyer, leveraging his experience as a former Army JAG officer to help him successfully handle the most complex cases covered in the UCMJ. In the years since starting his private practice, Mr. Jordan has defended hundreds of military service members stationed all over the world. He is committed to ensuring favorable outcomes for his clients and works diligently to protect their rights!

If you’re ready to benefit from the unwavering support of our experienced military lawyer, please call Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law toll free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411.

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