Can You Join the Military with a Criminal Record?

Are you interested in joining the military? A criminal record doesn’t make it impossible to enlist, but it certainly complicates the process.

The military holds recruits to a high standard. When you visit a Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), a recruiter interviews you to determine your mental aptitude, physical qualifications, and moral character. A criminal background check is also required.

Some types of criminal activity are grounds for immediate disqualification, while others require a waiver. The recruiter examines the circumstances surrounding each case to help them make their final decision.

Military Moral Character Standards

The military requires recruits to have “sound moral character” to minimize the enlistment of people who are likely to become disciplinary cases or security risks or who could disrupt good order, morale, and discipline. The military’s goal is to disqualify applicants who:

  • Are under judicial restraint, such as bond, probation, parole, or imprisonment
  • Have significant criminal records
  • Have been separated from the military under other-than-honorable conditions or for the good of the service
  • Have exhibited antisocial behavior or other character traits rendering them unfit to serve in the military

Criminal Record Waivers

Several felony and misdemeanor convictions are waivable. However, the procedure is not automatic, and hopeful recruits must request a criminal record waiver to pursue enlistment.

A waiver is required for the following types of convictions:

  • Burglary
  • Assault
  • Drug possession
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Harassment, menacing, or stalking
  • And others

Be aware that you have a limited time to apply for and submit a waiver. For instance, the Army board requires applicants to submit waivers for “major misconduct” offenses eight weeks before the board convenes.

Factors Affecting the Likelihood of Granting a Waiver

Once submitted, waivers are granted or denied on a case-by-case basis. They require personal statements, letters of recommendation from respectable community leaders, supporting evidence, court documents, and other paperwork to shore up your case. The waiver consideration process involves examining the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the offense. Here are the specific factors that affect how likely the military is to grant your waiver:

  • Number and severity of convictions: Having multiple offenses on your record could indicate a poor “moral history,” especially if the offenses are serious in nature. As a result, the military may hesitate to grant your waiver.
  • When the conviction occurred: Juvenile offenses carry less weight than crimes committed as an adult. In fact, they sometimes provide a way into the military. A judge may recommend that a convicted juvenile join the military rather than serve a prison sentence. Of course, this doesn’t mean the military must comply—it all depends on the circumstances.
  • Ability to adjust to civilian life: If you were previously imprisoned or otherwise under judicial control for your crimes, the military may consider how well you reintegrated upon returning to society.
  • Security clearance requirements: When applying for a military position requiring a high-level security clearance, any conviction could disqualify you.
  • Department of Defense’s current staffing needs: The conditions present when you apply significantly affect the likelihood of granting your waiver. For instance, when the military is hurting for recruits, they may be more willing to overlook questionable moral conduct in your past. The rules differ for each service branch, and the Marine Corps tends to be the strictest.

Offenses That Cannot be Waived

The military will never waive certain crimes. Any of the following convictions could make you ineligible for service:

  • Certain violent offenses, such as aggravated assault or statutory rape
  • Civil conviction of a serious offense with three or more other offenses
  • Drug sale, distribution, or trafficking (including marijuana)
  • Pretrial restraint, including being released on bond or parole
  • Arson, grand theft, kidnapping, and involuntary manslaughter
  • Two or more DUI/DWI convictions within the past five years
  • Certain financial misconduct, including embezzlement, extortion, and credit card fraud

Fraudulent Enlistment

There is no penalty for mentioning past legal trouble to your recruiter, but lying on your application about previous run-ins with the law is immediate grounds for dismissal. Sealed or expunged records may or may not be accessible to recruiters during an official investigation. Therefore, it’s best to disclose this information or risk forfeiting your military career.

If you’re dishonest about your history, the lie may get you into basic training or beyond. However, you may be charged with fraudulent enlistment long after completing basic training. This offense is covered in Article 83 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Maximum punishments include dishonorable discharge and up to two years of confinement.

Information about your criminal past could be discovered if you require a background check for a security clearance later in your military career. The in-depth vetting process could reveal the truth and land you in a heap of trouble. Of course, punishments vary depending on the nature, severity, and visibility of the deception, along with how well you defend yourself.

Seek Help from a Military Defense Lawyer

Are you unsure whether you can join the military with a particular crime on your record? Did you hide a past conviction when enlisting, and now you’re facing a fraudulent enlistment charge? Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, can help.

Mr. Jordan has over 10 years of military defense experience, with a specialty in defending UCMJ violations. He is passionate about seeking justice for Soldiers, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen, Airmen, and Marines stationed worldwide. To speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case, please call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411.

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