Types of Courts-Martial

Active-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces are subject to a different criminal justice system than civilians, governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This system differs from civilian systems in significant ways. One of the most important differences is the procedure for trials, known in the military as a court-martial. The UCMJ creates three types of court-martial, depending on the severity of the alleged offense. Defendants in a court-martial have greater rights than those in civilian life in some areas, and fewer rights in others. Servicemembers who are charged with an alleged offense under the UCMJ should seek the assistance of an experienced military criminal attorney, who can explain the court-martial system and their rights within it.

Court-Martial Procedures

A commanding officer may convene a court-martial to review allegations of misconduct or criminal activity, as defined by the UCMJ. For some minor offenses, a commanding officer may choose to impose non-judicial punishment (NJP), but a servicemember has the right to refuse NJP and request a court-martial.

An important difference between a court-martial and a civilian trial involves the jury. In a civilian trial, a jury panel is randomly selected and notified to appear in court, then reviewed by the prosecutor and the defense. The officer who convenes a court-martial has the right to select the panel who will serve in the role of jury. A defendant, known in the UCMJ as the “accused,” in some cases may choose a trial before the judge. Officers and warrant officers may serve in a court martial panel, as well as enlisted members who are not part of the same unit as the accused.

Summary Court-Martial

A summary court-martial is a simple procedure for adjudicating allegations of minor misconduct by enlisted servicemembers. A single officer acts as the finder of fact in this type of proceeding. If an accused refuses NJP, this is the type of court-martial that usually results. Punishment in this type of court-martial is usually limited to thirty to sixty days confinement.

Special Court-Martial

This type of court-martial is comparable to a misdemeanor trial in the civilian system. A military judge presides, and a trial counsel, or prosecutor, presents the charges against the accused. The accused is entitled to defense counsel. A panel of at least three officers may serve as jury, but the accused can request that the judge hear the case alone. Special courts-martial may hear cases involving offenses with punishments of up to one year confinement.

General Court-Martial

The most serious alleged offenses go before a general court-martial, which may impose whatever punishments are set by the UCMJ and the Manual for Courts-Martial, up to and including the death penalty. A pretrial investigation is required before a general court-martial may take place, in which the accused has the right to participate. An accused also has the right to court-appointed counsel, or to retain a private attorney.

I am an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help if you have been charged with a military criminal offense in the Tacoma area, including Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Base Kitsap. I can advise you of your rights and options under the military criminal system, and I will vigorously defend you against the charges brought by the government. For more than 15 years, I have protected the rights of servicemembers in courts-martial and other proceedings. Contact us today online or at (888) 312-3093 for a free consultation.