Military Law

Keeping Law & Order in the US Military

About 1.5 million (PDF) men and women serve in the US military, working each day to protect us and our way of life from all sorts of threats. Beyond what you typically see and hear in the news about our armed forces, there are specialized military offices that protect service members, enforce military law and investigate crimes by military personnel.

Police & Security Officers

Each branch of the US military has its own "police force:"

  • The Air Force has the Air Force Security Forces. Personnel are trained at the Air Force Security Forces Center in Texas
  • The Coast Guard itself is a law enforcement agency - it enforces federal law on the nation's navigable rivers and lakes, coastal seas and international waters. The Office of Law Enforcement is responsible for those duties, as well as policing the activities of Coast Guard members
  • It's the Military Police (MP) for the Army, and they're trained at the US ARMY Military Police School
  • The Marines also call their police officers MPs, and while they are in fact members of the Marine Corps, they are trained at the Army's MP school
  • The Navy has Masters-at-Arms. They're trained at the Naval Technical Training Center in Texas

What They Do

With the exception of the Coast Guard, military police and security officers generally can't use their police powers - such as arrest and search and seizure powers - on non-military members or civilians. With a few exceptions, they have authority only over people covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), meaning members of the military.

Also, they can enforce the UCMJ anywhere active military personnel are located. It doesn't matter if a service member commits a crime under the UCMJ on or outside a US military base or facility. The UCMJ is key here. Except for the Coast Guard, military police and security officers have no authority to enforce non-military or civilian criminal laws.

However, military police and security personnel have authority over civilians in some circumstances, such as when a civilian commits a crime or destroys property on a US military facility or other federal property. 

On the Base

MPs and other military law enforcement personnel perform a broad range of law enforcement and other duties while on their assigned bases or installations, including:

  • Investigating and making arrests for crimes, such as domestic abuse and disorderly conduct
  • Issuing traffic citations
  • Running jails or "brigs"
  • Protecting high-profile visitors on the base, such as government officials
  • Making sure only authorized personnel are allowed to enter the base
  • Protecting military equipment, supplies and travel routes in war zones or other areas of conflict

Military Investigative Units

As a general rule, MPs and other military security agents don't investigate very serious crimes committed by service members, such as homicides or sex-related crimes. These investigations are made by special agencies, namely, the:

These agencies have broad police powers to enforce both the UCMJ and federal criminal laws. Also, while active military personnel sometimes work in these agencies, for the most part agents are civilians, and are often former or retired military law enforcement personnel.

Most of us will never have contact with military police and security personnel. It's important for everyone to understand, however, that their jobs are just as tough and dangerous as those performed by your local police department, if not more so. They have laws and rules to enforce and people to protect, on top of their duties to protect and defend the nation.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can military police officers make citizen arrests if they witness civilians committing crimes under state or federal law?
  • I've been asked to talk to NCIS agents about criminal activities in my neighborhood that's near a military base. I'm a civilian. Do I have to talk to the agents? What might happen if I refuse?
  • An MP gave me a ticket for speeding while I was visiting a family member on a military base. Do I have to pay the fine? Does the ticket count as "points" against my driver's license. 
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