Understanding the Potential Impact of Civilian Criminal Cases on Military Service Members in Texas

Fort_Bliss_1948_Issue-3c.jpgThe United States military is a major part of Texas’ economic and political landscape. El Paso’s Fort Bliss is one of the largest bases in the country, and the greater west Texas region boasts Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo. While military service members often live and work among civilians in Texas, different sets of laws apply to them in many situations. A criminal case in a civilian court may affect a military service member’s career in ways that are difficult to predict without knowing a bit about military law.

Federal law prohibits anyone with a felony conviction from enlisting in the armed forces. 10 U.S.C. § 504(a), 50 U.S.C. App. § 456(m). Once a person joins one of the uniformed services, they come under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U.S.C. § 801 et seq. The UCMJ outlines procedures for trials, known as courts-martial, and other types of disciplinary action. It identifies offenses that are not found in civilian life, such as desertion, absence without leave, and disobeying orders, and it also includes criminal offenses ranging from theft and fraud to assault and murder.

A court-martial is similar to a trial in civilian court, with key differences based on the structure of military life. In some ways, defendants in courts-martial have far more rights and protections than in civilian trials. Civilian criminal cases may originate with a closed grand jury proceeding, or merely the filing of an information or indictment. A court-martial must be preceded by an investigation, known as an Article 32 hearing, at which the accused may have counsel, cross-examine witnesses, and present evidence. 10 U.S.C. § 832.

The UCMJ also allows “administrative corrective measures” (ACM) and “non-judicial punishment” (NJP) instead of courts-martial. A commanding officer has the authority to use ACM to dispose of offenses committed by people under their command through reprimand, censure, additional duties, withholding of privileges, or advancement to NJP or court-martial, under Rule 306 of the Rules of Courts-Martial, found in Part II of the Manual for Courts-Martial (the “Manual”).

NJP allows an accused’s commanding officer to recommend punishment without going through the full court-martial procedure. 10 U.S.C. § 815. The accused must be given the option of accepting non-judicial punishment or demanding a court-martial. NJP is only available for “minor” offenses, defined as those for which the maximum penalty does not exceed dishonorable discharge or one year of imprisonment.

Certain federal statutes impose specific collateral consequences on military service members, particularly with regard to eligibility for veterans’ benefits. A person may not receive a military pension for more than 60 days after being incarcerated for a felony or misdemeanor conviction, although their spouse or children may continue to receive benefits. 38 U.S.C. § 1505. The Lautenberg Amendment, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(9), prohibits anyone convicted of a crime involving domestic violence from possessing a firearm. This clearly has a major potential impact on a military career.

Almost any sort of civilian criminal case could affect a service member’s career beyond any penalties imposed by the court. The Constitution’s prohibition on double jeopardy does not necessarily apply to disciplinary measures under the UCMJ. The Manual limits the scope of punishments officers may use through NJP, but it sets few limits, if any, on ACM. See Manual, Part V, §§ 1f, 1g. An excellent plea deal in a civilian criminal case might result in a loss of benefits or pay from a commanding officer.

Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown represents people in west Texas charged with alleged offenses at the state and federal level. To schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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Photo credit: By Bureau of Engraving and Printing; designed by Charles R. Chickering [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.