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The Difference Between Military and Civilian Criminal Cases


— November 8, 2019

While there are similarities between the two, military criminal cases are subject to a completely different set of rules than are civilian cases.


There are separate sets of rules, privileges and regulations that govern military criminal cases. Military courts have a different set of codes, processes and penalties that are not seen in or peculiar to civilian law courts. The purpose of this article is to highlight the differences that set them apart. 

Military crimes also carry enough potential to destroy your reputation for good in the future. It’s best to familiarize yourself with the different proceeding in case you get charged with a crime, so that you will be prepared to face any challenge in the future.

Here are a few differences between military and civilian criminal cases:

Military cases are governed by a unified code: Civilian crime cases are subject to local, state and federal laws, but military members are subject to the United code of Military Justice abbreviated as UCMJ. The code is an embodiment of a set of rules passed into law by congress in the 1950s. This code is consistent at all branches of the military and is the primary guide in their courts-martial.

The Court-Martial: The UCMJ lays out the basis and regulation of a court-martial proceeding. Unlike the law court that handles civilian criminal cases the court-martial handles military-specific criminal cases. However, if a military personnel breaks a minor civilian law like traffic violations, they may still be required to appear before a civilian law court.

More serious and violent crimes against civilians and the military will only be heard in a court-martial. There are generally three types of courts-martial:

1. Summary Court-martial

2. Special Court-martial

3. General Court-martial

Summary Courts-martial: Summary courts-martial are usually meant for minor offenses and do not require that a military judge or JAG attorney be involved. The military will not offer a free defense counsel unless you’re form a branch or are a member of the Air Force. If you are found guilty, penalties can range from 30-45 days confinement with hard labor and a reduced ranking.

Special Courts-martial: Special courts-martial are set up for more serious cases and look more like a civilian criminal case proceeding but with well-trained military judges. In place of a jury that is peculiar to civilian law courts, three service members will be asked to decide on the final verdict of the case. Penalties if found guilty may result in discharge, reduced pay, or military confinement for up to one year with months of hard labor.

General Courts-martial: General courts-martial handle the most severe military criminal cases. Penalties could be life imprisonment, death or dishonorable discharge from the military. Cases that might lead to death penalty must be decided by a jury made up of 12 peers. There is no appeal once a resolution is made.

Silver-colored dog tags hanging on hooks shallow focus photography; image by Holly Mindrup, via Unsplash.com.
Silver-colored dog tags hanging on hooks shallow focus photography; image by Holly Mindrup, via Unsplash.com.

Civilian court Jury vs Military Jury

Military juries are quite different from civilian law juries. As a civilian you have the right to be heard by a 12 peer jury. When it comes to military justice, juries don’t have to reach 12 and those who make the list will most likely be commissioned officers of higher rank.

Unanimous voting decision

When it comes to civilian law cases every member of the jury most vote unanimously in one direction for the case to come to a logical conclusion. When it comes to court-martials in military justice, unanimous decisions are only needed when a defendant is facing a death penalty. Any case facing life imprisonment will need three-fourths of the votes. 

The military jury is also saddled with the responsibility of deciding or creating a single sentence for the individual as opposed to following a set of laid down sentences in local, state or federal courts of law.

How are military appeals heard?

Civilian law proceedings make provision for appeals via the appellate court of law if you aren’t satisfied with the judgement. However, when it comes to the military, appeals are heard by your branch of the military, e.g. the Navy-court of criminal appeals or the military court of criminal appeals.

Military lawyers must receive special military training

It’s easier to find a lawyer for a civilian criminal case than it is to locate a military lawyer. Colorado Springs attorney is a place to start in your journey to locating the right personal to defend your case.

Most lawyers are only trained in local, state and federal laws so you will need to look for a defense lawyer that is specially trained in military crimes and defense. You should look into the portfolio of these lawyers to ensure that they have sufficient experience and case history to take on your case effectively. 

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