Military Law

Military Versus Civilian Court Authority

Like civilians, military service members can be involved in crime. These crimes may be committed on or off a military base. Many civilian laws may be broken during the commission of a crime. However, the military has its own set of laws to deal with crimes.

Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ)

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the system of rules that guide the military criminal process. Members of the military can be tried and convicted in a court-martial, or military court, under these rules. The military court system is completely separate from the civilian court system.

The UCMJ covers the majority of the members of the military. This includes members of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines and Navy. It also includes members of the military reserves while in active service.

Military and Civilian Court Authority

Military courts have exclusive authority over purely military crimes. Civilian courts have no authority. Some examples of purely military crimes include:

  • Mutiny
  • Sedition
  • Failure to obey an order
  • Insubordinate conduct

Most crimes violate both civilian and military law. Examples include robbery, assault and murder. The issue becomes whether a military service member will be tried in civilian or military court.

Civilian court authority is usually based on the location of the crime. The crime must have occurred within the boundaries of the state. Military court authority is based on the status of the offender. If he's an active service member, the UCMJ applies no matter where the crime occurs.

If a crime violates both military and state civilian law, it may be tried by a military court, a civilian court or both. Usually the two systems will coordinate to decide where the service member should be prosecuted. A military member can't be tried for the same misconduct by both a military court and another federal court. He can be tried for the same misconduct by both a military court and a state court.

Types of Military Court-Martial

Under the UCMJ, there are three types of military court-martial: summary, special and general. Each one is slightly different in how it's made up. Punishments can also differ.

A summary court-martial is usually used to resolve minor crimes. It's made up of one commissioned officer. The maximum penalties include:

  • Confinement of 30 days
  • Hard labor without confinement for 45 days
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds' pay per month for one month
  • Reduction to the lowest pay grade
  • For service members with higher pay grades, confinement or hard labor without confinement can't be imposed, and their pay grade can only be reduced to the next lower level

A special court-martial is usually used for crimes that are considered misdemeanors. It's made up a military judge and at least three enlisted members. An accused may be tried by a military judge alone upon request of the accused. The maximum penalties that can be imposed include:

  • Confinement for one year
  • Hard labor without confinement for up to three months
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds’ pay per month for up to one year
  • Reduction in pay grade
  • Bad-conduct discharge

A general court-martial is usually used for the most serious crimes. It's made up of a military judge and not less than five enlisted members. A military judge alone can decide the case upon request of the accused. A general court-martial can impose any punishment not prohibited by the UCMJ. In some cases, a death sentence is possible.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • If I am arrested for committing a crime, do I have any say as to where I will be prosecuted?
  • Does a state court have civilian authority if the crime took place on a military base?
  • Do I have the same due process rights in both civilian and military courts?

Change Location

Get Started *Please enter a valid location.

Military Law Firms in Ashburn, VA 
change location

Swipe to view more

Get Professional Help

Find a Military Law Basics lawyer
Practice Area:
Zip Code:
How It Works
  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys
Have a military law question?
Get answers from local attorneys.
It's free and easy.
Ask a Lawyer