All military service members are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Specific crimes and their corresponding punishments are defined in the 146 articles of the UCMJ. Notably, the articles also provide procedural protections for members, including the right to a military defense attorney and the option to appeal courts-martial convictions.
Military Crime and Punishment
Military crimes vary widely in scope and severity. Many align with civilian crimes, such as robbery, assault, and murder. Others are military-specific, such as mutiny, desertion, and aiding the enemy.
The disciplinary actions for committing military crimes also vary widely, depending on the severity of the crime in question. Not surprisingly, the most common type of military discipline is non-judicial punishment (NJP), the action taken when a service member commits a minor violation.
As the name suggests, non-judicial punishment is not considered a judicial (criminal) proceeding. This allows commanders to resolve allegations of minor misconduct without resorting to a formal court-martial. As such, being summoned to an NJP hearing does not create a criminal record, and the violation should be removed from your military record after two years.
Despite the comparatively low-key nature of non-judicial punishment, it’s still considered a serious matter. Depending on the nature of the offense, your overall military performance, and other circumstances, you may or may not be denied the opportunity to reenlist if you have an NJP on your service record. In most cases, non-judicial punishment isn’t a career-killer, but it’s still something you want to avoid.
Non-Judicial Punishment in Different Branches of the Military
It is important to note that the five military branches refer to non-judicial punishment differently:
- The Coast Guard and Navy call it a Captain’s Mast.
- The Air Force and Army call it an Article 15.
- The Marines call it Office Hours.
The most commonly used nickname for non-judicial punishment is Article 15 because the authority for commanders to impose this hearing is detailed under Article 15 of the UCMJ.
Regardless of which name is used and which military branch conducts it, all Article 15 hearings follow similar procedures. Still, it’s worth mentioning that the Marines and Navy require “clear and convincing evidence” before issuing an NJP, whereas the Air Force and Army call for the highest standard of proof known as “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Article 15 Violations & Maximum Penalties
The violations that initiate an NJP hearing may occur on or off base. Off-base offenses can be prosecuted by both civilian authorities and military commanders, depending on the offense in question. Examples include:
- Contempt toward officials
- Absence without leave
- Underage drinking
- Failure to obey an order
- Disrespect toward a superior officer
- Sleeping on duty
- Disorderly conduct
- False official statements
The maximum penalties that can be imposed for an Article 15 violation include:
- Confinement for up to eight days
- Restriction to correctional custody, base, or other specified limits for up to 60 days
- Extra duties for up to 45 days
- Up to one-half forfeiture of pay for up to two months
- Reduction in rank by no more than one grade
Your commander may choose to suspend your punishment for up to a year, meaning it doesn’t take effect. As long as you don’t commit any more offenses during this probationary period, the suspended punishment will never come to fruition.
Accepting or Refusing an Article 15
If a commander summons you to a non-judicial hearing, you can respond in one of two ways—you can accept the summons, or you can refuse the NJP proceeding and seek a trial by court-martial instead. If enough evidence is stacked against you during your hearing, it may be deemed appropriate to move your case to a court-martial proceeding.
Accepting an Article 15 doesn’t mean you admit guilt—it means you accept the commander’s decision. If you plead not guilty, your commander must listen to your side of the case. You may represent yourself or have a non-lawyer act as your spokesperson. You can present evidence and ask witnesses to share their side of the story. You can also provide information regarding your duty performance, good reputation, and other facts that may support your innocence or that you deserve a light sentence.
You may want to accept the Article 15 because the maximum punishments are much lower than those imposed by a court-martial. For example, if you are found guilty under Article 15, you may be confined for up to eight days, as opposed to 200 days for a general court-martial. In addition, court-martial convictions are criminal in nature and may result in discharge from the military.
The main reason to refuse an Article 15 and demand a court-martial instead is to enjoy more procedural rights. NJP proceedings are quite informal, but courts-martial are conducted under strict rules. Be aware that if your case is referred to a court-martial, it will most likely be a summary court-martial, the least serious type of judicial proceeding.
Appealing an Article 15
If you are found guilty, you have the right to appeal the Article 15 decision to the next highest level of command. The appeal must be submitted within five days of your hearing. Your goal is to have your sentence reduced or overturned on one of three grounds:
- There is not enough evidence.
- The punishment is too severe for the crime.
- Your commander failed to follow proper procedures.
If the appeal is not successful, your punishment will remain the same. The commander considering the appeal cannot increase your sentence. If you want to keep fighting after a failed appeal, the next step is to contact the Board of Correction for Military Records (BCMR). This organization may reconsider your sentence and help prevent the outcome of an Article 15 from jeopardizing your military career.
Seek Advice from a Military Attorney
When faced with the prospect of an NJP hearing, remember that your commander’s decision could impact your military career. That’s why it’s highly recommended that you consult with an attorney before accepting, refusing, or appealing an Article 15.
Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, is here to represent you. Our team proudly advocates for military members accused of violating any articles of the UCMJ, whether minor or serious. We’ll ensure you receive the best possible representation as an American citizen and service member in the U.S. military. Call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 today to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case.