UCMJ Offenses – An Evolution

ucmj offenses

The punitive articles of the UCMJ are a series of statutes (laws) that specify criminal offenses in all branches of the Armed Forces. Let’s take a look at the evolution of UCMJ Offenses.

Military members have been subject to a military criminal code since before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. The Articles of War, based largely upon the British model, were adopted to ensure good order and discipline in the Continental Army. Historically, these Articles of War applied to military-specific crimes, such as desertion from a unit or disobeying a superior’s orders. The Articles of War applied to Soldiers and Sailors for almost the next 200 years. Each service, the Army and the Navy, had their own articles, which often differed.

In 1951, Congress enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). This major change to the military criminal code was meant to make the code “uniform” among the services. World War II, and the massive numbers of citizens drafted to serve in the war, exposed significant problems in how military discipline and court martial trials were conducted. Amazingly, two million or more court martial trials were conducted during WWII. Citizen-Soldiers were outraged by the unfairness of the system. Congress heard the cries for reform and responded with this major overhaul of the military justice system.

Expanding Nature of the UCMJ

In the early days of the United States, the Articles of War were meant to punish only military-specific crimes. These were crimes that civilian criminal codes did not address, such as maltreatment of subordinates, AWOL, disrespect to superiors, and failure to obey orders. Because these things were important to good order and discipline, the Army and Navy needed a means to impose punishment for these crimes that were not recognized in civilian courts.

Over time, the types of offenses covered by the Articles of War and the UCMJ expanded. The military justice system has developed into a criminal system that now mirrors many State criminal codes. The UCMJ itself has been amended many times since 1951. Today, the UCMJ criminalizes all sorts of offenses, both those that have unique application to the military and otherwise ordinary crimes.

By way of example, there are UCMJ offenses for:

  • Murder – Article 118
  • Rape and sexual assault – Article 120
  • Rape and sexual assault of a child – Article 120b
  • Possession and distribution of illegal drugs – Article 112a
  • Drunk driving – Article 113
  • False official statements – Article 107
  • Child endangerment – Article 119b
  • Larceny and wrongful appropriation – Article 121
  • Fraudulent use of credit cards – Article 121a
  • Robbery – Article 122
  • Kidnapping – Article 125
  • Assaults and aggravated assaults – Article 128
  • Obstructing justice – Article 131b

The UCMJ today is a fully-developed criminal code. Although the United States Supreme Court was initially reluctant to allow Congress to expand military criminal jurisdiction so widely, more recent decisions from the Supreme Court have loosened restrictions and now recognize the military court martial system as one that can punish any offenses committed by military members. In fact, the UCMJ and its criminal offenses apply to all active duty servicemembers, at all times and no matter where they are located.

Military Justice Act of 2016 and Current UCMJ Offenses

The current criminal offenses in the UCMJ are the result of one of the most significant revisions of the UCMJ since its enactment in 1951. The Military Justice Act (MJA) of 2016, which went into effect on January 1, 2019, restructured the UCMJ offenses. Several new offenses were created and many others were amended as a result of the MJA of 2016 and other recent legislation. New offenses include:

  • Prohibited activities with a military recruit or trainee – Article 93a
  • Wrongful broadcast or distribution of intimate visual images (“revenge porn”) – Article 117a
  • Offenses concerning government computers – Article 123

The military’s rape and sexual assault statute – Article 120 – also underwent its latest of several revisions. Most significantly, Article 120 now criminalizes any sexual act committed “without the consent” of the alleged victim. This particular offense seems to be the most charged sexual misconduct offense in the military. There are significant problems with the offense, which exceeds the scope of this blog. Don’t worry! I will address it in a subsequent blog.

Article 134 of the UCMJ

Finally, if you do not already know, Article 134 of the UCMJ is a sort of “catch-all” criminal statute. Article 134 prohibits “all disorders and neglects to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces” and “conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.” So, anything a servicemember might do, even if not specifically mentioned in the UCMJ, can be considered an offense if the government can prove it was prejudicial to good order and discipline or service-discrediting. Article 134 survived the changes to the MJA of 2016, but many of the offenses previously prosecuted under the statute have now been codified in other UCMJ statutes.

The MJA of 2016 also resulted in significant changes to court martial procedure. I will address some of those changes in subsequent blogs, so stay tuned.

Military Attorney in Hawaii Understands the UCMJ

The UCMJ and court martial procedure are complicated. If you are under investigation or court martial charges have been preferred against you, you need an experienced military attorney. At Ganz and Bridges Law Office we have extensive experience with the UCMJ and court martial trials. Mark A. Bridges has been involved in court martial trials and military justice for over 30 years. He has been a part of the military justice system, from all vantage points, for his entire professional career. No one is better qualified to help you fight your court martial charges. Call today if you need help.

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