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Big Changes to Military Justice in 2019

court martial

In 2016, Congress passed the Military Justice Act of 2016. These significant changes to the UCMJ and the Manual for Courts-Martial came into effect on January 1, 2019. While the law did create some new offenses, the biggest changes came in the procedures associated with courts-martial. Here are some of the most important changes:

1) New offenses

The new UCMJ has added a few offenses, such as Article 93a, which prohibits sexual relationships between drill instructors and recruiters and recruits or trainees, Article 121a, which specifically deals with fraudulent use of credit cards, debit cards, and other access devices, Article123, which covers misconduct with Government computers, such as unlawfully accessing or distributing classified information or transmitting malware that causes damage to a Government computer accident, and Article 132, which prohibits retaliation against a service member for reporting or planning to report a criminal offense.

2) Renumbered/renamed offenses

The law takes many of the offenses that were previously listed under Article 134 and places them into the enumerated Articles, either incorporating them into existing offenses or replacing offenses that have been removed or consolidated. For example, the drunken or reckless operation of vehicles, vessels, and aircraft has been moved from Article 111 to Article 113. Article 114 used to prohibit dueling, but has now been expanded to cover other endangerment offenses that used to fall under Article 134, such as wrongful discharge of a firearm or unlawful concealed carry of a weapon.

3) New type of court-martial

Procedurally, the biggest change is the addition of a new court-martial forum. The new military judge-alone special court-martial allows a military judge (or military magistrate) to sentence a service member to up to six months confinement, reduction in rank, and up to six months forfeiture in pay. It cannot award a punitive discharge and a servicemember cannot refuse trial in this forum.

4) Set number of members/Judge sentencing

The new law also made changes to members panels and sentencing. Under the former system, a special court-martial required at least 3 members and a general court-martial required at least 5. In order to convict, at least 2/3 of the panel members had to vote to convict. Now, a special court-martial will have exactly 4 members and a noncapital general court-martial will have exactly 8 members. A conviction will require the vote of 3/4 of these panels. Sentencing will be done by the military judge, even in cases where the servicemember is tried by members, unless the service member asks that the panel decide the sentence.

5) Plea agreements

The Military Justice Act also changed the procedure for plea agreements. Previously, the members or military judge imposing the sentence did not know the sentence limitations before the sentence was announced. Under the new procedure, the sentencing authority will know the maximum sentence that will be approved under the agreement.

6) Automatic appeals

Appellate procedures have also been changed. Instead of automatic review of all courts-martial that resulted in an approved sentence that included a punitive discharge or one year of confinement or more, now only cases with a punitive discharge or confinement of two years or more are automatically reviewed. An accused who receives a sentence of confinement for six months or more who is not eligible for automatic review may file an appeal as well.

These are the biggest changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial, but certainly are not all of them. These changes are extensive and if you are a servicemember facing disciplinary action, it is important that you are represented by an attorney that understands the system and knows the new law. I have the experience you need. Please call Bill Cassara at (706) 860-5769 for a free consultation.

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