Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed January 20, 2023
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All service members in the U.S. Armed Forces are subject to military law, consisting of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and other statutory provisions. While it is similar to civilian law in many ways, such as the right to counsel and full protection under the Constitution, the UCMJ has many provisions and crimes unique to the military. These include rules against fraternization with officers, the discharge process, crimes of insubordination, absence without leave (AWOL), and desertion.
The military tries cases through the court martial process, which is similar to a civilian trial but has its own rules and procedures. FindLaw's Military Law Center will help you navigate this sometimes confusing area of law.
Persons who are on active duty, who are reserve service members (reservists), and even in R.O.T.C. as a student, are all covered under the UCMJ. Thus, if you are in the Navy, Marine Corps, U.S. Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, and even the National Guard, or in the R.O.T.C. of any of these military branches, you must adhere to the UCMJ or be subject to a court-martial and dishonorable discharge if you violate the UCMJ.
Civilian Courts and UCMJ
Congress enacted the UCMJ in 1951 to ensure military laws were the same across all branches of the US Military. Congress is the only government authority that has the ability to update the UCMJ.
In the UCMJ, attorneys are known as judge advocate generals or "JAG" officers. If you're in the armed services and facing a court martial, you should have a JAG officer assigned to you to assist. JAG can also assist in civil areas of martial law, not just criminal law aspects of martial law. If you need to speak with a JAG for any reason, your commanding officer should know how to get you in touch with the appropriate JAG for your unit.
Not all military personnel who commit a crime will be punished under UCMJ. There may be times when the military decides there is reason to let non-martial law enforcement (such as state governments, the federal government, or governments of foreign countries) prosecute a crime allegedly committed by a military service member. This can happen if the crime was committed while the military service member was on leave.
The military justice system is complex, just like civilian courts. As members of the armed forces, you do not have the same rights under the military justice system as you would in civilian courts. If you're facing a general court-martial or military tribunal, have been arrested by military law enforcement (MPs), and charged with military crimes, it is imperative you speak with a JAG right away to know your rights in military courts and as a military member.
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Contact a qualified military law attorney to help you with military-related issues.