Several changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) took effect Jan. 1. They include:
* The adultery charge has been replaced. The charge is now called “extra-marital sexual conduct.” It now includes same-sex affairs. Persons who are legally separated now can use that status as a defense when accused of extra-marital conduct. The change also broadens the definition of sexual conduct to include “oral sex and other types of sexual conduct.”
* Recruiters, drill sergeants and anyone else held in a “position of trust” over younger troops would face stiffer sentences if convicted of crimes involving abuse of those under their authority. Authority figures who engage in sexual activities with persons they supervise would see the maximum sentence upon conviction increased to five years’ imprisonment, up from two years. Junior service members also have greater protection against retaliatory personnel action by superiors, in cases where the younger persons come forward with complaints of criminal activity by these superiors. Those in leadership positions who are found guilty of such reprisals could face up to three years’ confinement without pay, plus a dishonorable discharge.
* Laws covering cyber crimes have been stiffened. Service members who “wrongfully access unauthorized information on government computers” and distribute classified information could land them up to 10 years in prison. Wrongful access alone could warrant a five-year sentence, as would intentionally damaging government computers. This would include infecting a computer with a virus. Cyberstalking is now considered just as illegal as stalking.
* Fraud involving government credit and debit cards could carry sentences of up to 15 years in prison, in cases where the theft amounts to more than $1,000. Theft of less than $1,000 could sentences of five to 10 years’ imprisonment.
* More criminal cases would be resolved by so-called “bench trials,” conducted by a judge alone. The bench-trial option is not available in cases involving rape or sexual assault. These crimes still would be referred to general court-martial. Service members who are convicted at bench trial would not be subject to punitive discharge, and their sentences would be limited to fewer than six months’ confinement. Judges, however, would still have the authority to reduce rank. While commanders always have had authority to limit maximum sentences at bench trials through plea bargains, they now can set minimum sentences too.
“Panels at general courts-martial that do not involve capital offenses have been set at eight members. Previously, general court-martial panels could vary in size from five to 12 members. If a panel member must leave the case due to an emergency, the remaining members can continue hearing the case. Special courts-martial panels are now set at four members. Capital trials require 12-member panels.
* Three-fourths of all panel members must agree in order to deliver a guilty verdict, in cases that do not involve non-capital offenses. Convictions in capital offenses, such as murder, require unanimous agreement of guilt.
* Judges have expanded authority to issue investigative subpoenas earlier in the trial process. This means that judges can move to procure evidence such as surveillance video from a store camera, email correspondence, and other such communications. In the past, such evidence could not be obtained until preferring charges were issued.
* Commanders would have greater authority in determining whether a criminal case should go to trial. Preliminary hearing officers are required to provide “detailed” reports of the proceedings of Article 32 hearings, which are the military equivalent of civilian grand juries, immediately after they conclude.
* The definition of burglary has been expanded to include breaking and entering with the intent to commit a crime under the UCMJ.
* The penalty for wearing unauthorized medals for valor has increased to up to one year in prison, forfeiture of pay, and a bad conduct discharge. This would include the Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Navy Cross, Silver Star, Purple Heart, and any valor device.