Guilty Pleas in Courts Martial
If you decide it is in your best interest to plead guilty, your attorney may negotiate the terms of your plea which will be captured in writing. This is known as the Pre-trial Agreement (PTA). It will usually include a cap on confinement that the Military Judge can sentence you with, and potentially limit the type of punitive discharge. The terms of your guilty plea may also include waiving your right to an Article 32 preliminary hearing, and your right to file motions. Your attorney will also negotiate a stipulation of fact which includes the factual basis for the offense(s) that you are pleading guilty to. The GCMCA will either approve or deny the PTA. If approved, the plea will be scheduled and normally takes no more than several hours to complete. Instead of a contested trial where evidence is disputed and witnesses are cross examined, the military judge will question you at length about the offense(s) to determine if you are making the decision to plead guilty knowingly and voluntarily, and in order to find you guilty. This is known as the “providency inquiry.” The judge will also utilize the stipulation of fact to determine your guilt, and to determine an appropriate sentence. If the judge accepts your guilty plea, you will move directly to sentencing.
If the Government is not reasonable with the terms of a plea deal, it is possible to plead guilty without the protection of a PTA. This is sometimes referred to as a “naked plea” or “unprotected plea.” With this type of plea, the judge is allowed to sentence you to the maximum punishment allowed by law.
What is a Summary Court Martial?
Only enlisted members are eligible for a Summary Court Martial (SCM). The term “Summary Court Martial” is something of a misnomer, as it cannot result in a criminal conviction. Some refer to it as a “Super Article 15.” Like Article 15 NJP, you can decline a SCM which would most likely result in the case being taken to a Special or General Court Martial. Also similar to the Article 15 NJP, you have the right to consult with an attorney prior to making your decision about accepting the SCM, but you do not have the right for an attorney to represent you at the proceeding.
SCMs may be convened by a commander in the grade of O-5 or higher. A SCM Officer will be appointed, who is a commissioned officer in the grade of O-3 or higher. This is the individual who will consider the evidence against you, make the decision about guilt, and impose the sentence if you are found guilty.
For E-4 and below, a SCM may adjudge a sentence of confinement for 30 days or less, hard labor without confinement for 45 days or less, restriction for 2 months or less, forfeiture of 2/3 pay per month for one month or less, and reduction to the lowest grade. For E-5 and above, a SCM may adjudge restriction for 2 months or less, forfeiture of 2/3 pay per month for one month or less, and reduction of one pay grade only.
What Does a Short Martial Mean?
As of 1 January 2019, a new type of Special Court Martial may be convened as a judge alone trial without the consent of the Accused. This means that if your case is referred to this type of court martial, you do not have the option to select a trial by panel members (military jury). However, you can object to this type of court martial. This is similar to the civilian version of a judge’s bench trial over misdemeanors, where the Defendant does not have the right to a jury. These courts martial are commonly referred to as a “short martial.”
The justification for the short martial is that it only applies to certain offenses and punishment is limited. A short martial does not have jurisdiction to try offenses that could receive more than 2 years confinement at General Court Martial, or offenses that would require sex offender registration if convicted. Charges for wrongful use or possession of controlled substances are the exception (charges for distribution and manufacturing are not covered by the exception). A short martial may not adjudge more than 6 months confinement, more than 6 months forfeiture of pay, and may not adjudge a punitive discharge.
If charges are referred which do not fall within the jurisdiction of a short martial, the Accused may object prior to arraignment. However, the Government may then simply refer the charges to a regular Special Court Martial or General Court Martial.
Special Court Martial vs General Court Martial
A Special Court Martial (SPCM) consists of a panel (military jury) of four members, or you may be tried by military judge alone at your request. Enlisted members may request that the panel be made up of at least one-third enlisted personnel. If found guilty, enlisted members can be reduced to the lowest grade and receive a Bad Conduct Discharge. Officers cannot be reduced in rank or receive a punitive discharge (dismissal). All members regardless of rank can be sentenced to confinement of up to 1-year, hard labor without confinement for up to 3 months, and forfeiture of up to two-thirds pay per month for up to 1 year. A finding of guilt at SPCM will result in a federal conviction and criminal record.
A General Court-Martial (GCM) consists of a panel of eight members (12 in a capital case), or you may be tried by military judge alone at your request. Enlisted members may request that the panel be made up of at least one-third enlisted personnel. A GCM may adjudge any punishment not prohibited by the UCMJ, including death when specifically authorized. A finding of guilt at GCM will result in a federal conviction and criminal record.