The most frequent type of military discipline available under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is an Article 15. (Article 15s are formally referred to as nonjudicial punishment, though they are called "office hours" in the Marine Corps and "mast" in the Navy and Coast Guard.) Commanders can impose Article 15s because no formal criminal proceeding is required to do so. An Article 15 does not create a criminal record and, in some cases, will end up being removed from military records.
Article 15s are supposed to be imposed for minor disciplinary problems only, but sometimes commanders will issue one to an officer or other high-ranking member of the military to prevent more severe punishment for serious disciplinary offenses.
Proof Required for an Article 15
All of the branches of the military follow similar Article 15 procedures, although the proof required to impose an Article 15 does vary. For example, the Navy and Marines require “clear and convincing” proof of the infraction, whereas the Army and Air Force require that there be no “reasonable doubt” that the infraction occurred. Often, however, commanders aren’t even aware of these required standards of proof. They will simply have evidence of a disciplinary problem and will impose an Article 15 on that basis.
Right to Refuse an Article 15
A soldier has the right refuse to accept an Article 15 and instead request trial by court-martial. It is important to know that accepting an Article 15 is not an admission that you are guilty. You should be allowed to consult with a military defense attorney before deciding whether to accept or reject the Article 15. A punishment by court-martial can be much more severe. so you will want to make this decision carefully.
Sometimes Article 15s are referred to a summary court-martial. You have the right to refuse a summary court-martial.
In a summary court-martial, one military officer serves in four roles; prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and jury. This officer has the obligation to investigate the facts underlying the Article 15 by making inquiries of you and your accuser and to draw a factual conclusion as to your guilt or innocence based on the evidence gathered. If the military officer has any legal questions, he or she may make inquiries to a judge advocate.
Unfortunately, you have no right to a military defense attorney at a summary court-martial, although technically you can hire a private attorney. However, often your use of a civilian attorney is restricted. You can always ask another service member to speak on your behalf or ask the Judge Advocate General (JAG) for a spokesperson to assist you. You do have the right to see the evidence against you before the start of the proceedings.
At the preliminary hearing, you will be given a copy of the charge sheet and the following information:
- the name of the person who has accused you of an infraction
- what you are being charged with
- the names of witnesses that will be presented against you, and
- any documents or other evidence that will be submitted against you.
Your Rights at a Summary Court-Martial
Your protections at a Summary Court-Martial include the right to:
- plead guilty or not guilty
- present witnesses and evidence at trial (including sworn statements from witnesses)
- testify or remain silent, without your silence being taken as an admission of fault
- be informed of the maximum possible sentence, and
- if found guilty, the right to:
- remain silent, or
- make a written or verbal statement and/or introduce new evidence to show extenuating circumstances or to support a mitigation (reduction) in punishment.
The presentation of evidence at a Summary Court-Martial is governed by the Military Rules of Evidence. These rules are similar to the evidence rules used in civilian court. The fact that these evidence rules are used means that only evidence that meets certain requirements can be admitted. For example, your buddy cannot testify that he heard someone else say you were innocent, because that is called hearsay. But you can call the person who said you were innocent and ask them to explain why they said it. These rules can get complicated, which is why it helps to at least talk with an attorney before the proceedings, so you can be prepared.
It is the responsibility of the officer convening the Summary Court-Martial to arrange for the attendance of any witnesses you request on your own behalf. The witnesses of the prosecution will testify first, and you will have the right to cross-examine them (ask them questions). Next you get to call your own witnesses.
After that, the officer will announce the finding of guilty or not guilty. If the finding is guilty, your sentence will also be announced. If part of your sentence will be a confinement, you have the right to ask to have that punishment deferred.
A written record of the proceedings will be prepared and you have the right to receive a copy of it. This is important, because you will want to have a copy of the trial record in case you decide to appeal.
Article 15s and Your Future
An Article 15 in your military record can impact your ability to obtain special assignments, promotions, or security clearances. If some time has passed without any further disciplinary issues, sometimes you can get your Article 15 removed from your file. It is to your advantage to avoid further disciplinary issues in order to improve your chances of your Article 15 not following you throughout your military career. Or, an Article 15 might get removed after you earn a promotion. Article 15s filed on base at the JAG office often get removed after two years. Other Article 15s become part of your permanent military record and may be more difficult to get removed.
If you are issued an Article 15 for an incident involving an arrest, you should be aware that although you will not have a criminal record, the Department of Defense does permit arrests to be reported to the FBI. This can impact your civilian career later on. Ask your commander to contact the FBI to get the record of your arrest removed. If your commander won’t help, you can file a privacy act request to ask the FBI to remove it. Talk to the military defense attorney on your base to ask for assistance.