Article 120: What’s the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Contact?

The military takes all sex crimes very seriously. Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) outlines specific definitions and consequences for different types of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault and sexual contact. If you have been charged with an Article 120 violation, the information here will help you understand exactly what you’ve been accused of so you can begin building a defense strategy.

How Article 120 Defines Sexual Misconduct

The UCMJ categorizes sexual offenses into multiple categories, each with specific criteria and implications.

  • Rape under the UCMJ is defined as engaging in a sexual act with another person by using unlawful force, threats, or incapacitation. This includes penetration of any kind without consent.
  • Sexual assault is somewhat broader, encompassing any non-consensual sexual act, characterized by the use of force, threats, manipulation, intimidation, abuse of authority, or coercion, or while the victim is incapacitated due to substances or unable to consent due to mental or physical conditions.
  • Aggravated sexual contact involves sexual contact (as opposed to a sexual act) under circumstances that would constitute rape if it were a sexual act.
  • Abusive sexual contact refers to sexual contact that would be considered sexual assault if it escalated to a sexual act.

Distinguishing Between Sexual Assault and Sexual Contact

The nuanced definitions of sexual assault and sexual contact can be confusing, but it’s important for military service members to understand the difference, as these terms define the severity of offenses and punishments under the UCMJ.

Sexual assault is one of the more severe categories of sexual offenses, second only to rape. It is distinct from sexual contact because it requires a sexual act, which is more invasive and severe than sexual contact. Sexual assault can include a wide range of behaviors, from penetration without consent to attempts to commit this act. The lack of consent is the central element, alongside the presence of coercion or physical force.

Sexual contact is defined broadly under the UCMJ as the intentional touching, or causing another person to touch, the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person. This action must be done with intent to abuse, humiliate, harass, degrade, or for the purpose of arousing or gratifying sexual desire. Sexual contact encompasses a range of behaviors that do not involve penetration but are still considered invasive and non-consensual. As with sexual assault, consent is a key factor in determining whether an act is lawful sexual contact or constitutes an offense under the UCMJ.

Maximum Possible Punishments for Article 120 Violations

Article 120 doles out severe punishments for sexual offenses, reflecting the military’s zero-tolerance policy toward such conduct. The consequences of a conviction under Article 120 depend on the severity and nature of the offense.

  • Rape is met with the harshest penalties. If convicted, an individual faces forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for life without the possibility of parole, and a mandatory minimum sentence that includes officer dismissal or a dishonorable discharge for enlisted personnel.
  • Sexual assault punishments include forfeiture of all pay and allowances and confinement for up to 30 years. Similar to rape, a mandatory minimum sentence involves officer dismissal or a dishonorable discharge for enlisted members.
  • Aggravated sexual contact is punishable by forfeiture of all pay and allowances, up to 20 years of confinement, and a dishonorable discharge.
  • Abusive sexual contact consequences include forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement for up to seven years, and a dishonorable discharge.

Navigating Sexual Assault or Sexual Contact Accusations

Service members accused of sexual assault or sexual contact face daunting prospects, including non-judicial punishment, administrative separation, or court-martial. The implications of these accusations extend far beyond potential legal penalties to include a damaged reputation, the end of your military career, and personal and familial distress.

Potential defense strategies are as varied as the circumstances surrounding each case. Some common approaches include:

  • Challenging the credibility of the evidence presented, including inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony or potential issues with how evidence was collected or handled
  • Examining the context of the alleged incident, seeking to establish a lack of intent or demonstrate that the actions were consensual
  • Focusing on the character and service record of the accused, presenting evidence of good character and exemplary service as mitigating factors
  • Pointing out procedural errors made during the investigation or charging process

Contact a Military Defense Lawyer

The best way to navigate sexual assault or sexual contact accusations is to team up with an experienced military attorney. Receiving legal counsel from someone with a comprehensive understanding of the military justice system is the key to formulating a strong defense.

Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, proudly advocates for service members in challenging legal situations. Mr. Jordan draws from over a decade of defense experience, preceded by years of service as an enlisted Soldier and Army JAG officer. Our legal team’s successful track record of handling complex court-martial cases demonstrates our ability to defend our clients aggressively. To discuss your case directly with Mr. Jordan, please call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411.

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