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Obscure offenses in the UCMJ can endanger Airmen’s careers

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Ignorance of the law is no excuse -- Airmen must understand the Uniform Code of Military Justice or risk destroying their careers. The 21st Space Wing Base Legal Office briefs incoming enlisted Airmen on the basics of the UCMJ, but many of the lesser-known offenses are harder to remember.

Most Airmen are aware of the "big three" categories of UCMJ offenses. Avoiding these categories of misconduct will prevent most disciplinary problems in the Air Force: illegal drug use, sexual misconduct, and poor choices stemming from alcohol abuse. These problem areas are well-known and high-profile, yet many other offenses remain under the radar and can seriously jeopardize an Airmen's future if they are not aware of them.

Contempt toward officials, found in Article 88 of the UCMJ, is of special concern. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, blogs, and other social media provide ample opportunity to share opinions about the military or elected officials. However, commissioned officers must be aware that Article 88 curtails their ability to criticize certain officials. Using "contemptuous words" against the president, vice president, Congress, secretary of defense, secretary of any military department or Homeland Security, or the governor or legislature of the state or possession in which the officer is on duty or present can result in a court martial. This includes written criticism, whether found in hard copy or on the Internet.

Officers need to exercise discretion about what they discuss in private, write in a newspaper, or post in online social media. There is no requirement that the contemptuous words reach a large amount of people. If the words come to the knowledge of any other person it satisfies the distribution element of the offense. In other words, a one-on-one conversation is sufficient to violate Article 88.

Calling in sick when you are not sick is another example of a UCMJ violation.

Pretending to be sick or injured to avoid military duty is codified as "malingering" in Article 115. Feigning illness, disablement, mental lapse, or derangement to avoid work is a crime in the military. The maximum punishment for malingering is confinement for one year, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a dishonorable discharge. In a time of war or hostile fire pay zone, the confinement can be for up to three years. Think twice before picking up the phone to call in "sick."

Article 134 covers a wide range of "General Offenses." It acts as a catch-all for myriad offenses not covered under specific Articles. Article 134 is where many of the lesser-known offenses are located, and Airmen should be familiar with this section.

Many of the General Offenses in Article 134 involve conduct that is indirectly related to the actual crime. A good example of this is obstruction of justice. Urging a fellow Airman to withhold information regarding the investigation of a crime can be prosecuted as obstruction of justice. Saying "Don't tell OSI anything about that when they ask" is interference with the investigation of a crime and can be prosecuted. Soliciting another to commit an offense is also a crime under the UCMJ. Simply asking another Airman to commit a criminal act is a punishable offense known as solicitation.

Another offense that may surprise Airmen is misprision, which is the active concealment of a serious offense from the proper reporting channels. If an Airmen knows who committed a serious offense and then takes positive action to hide that information from the proper civilian or military authorities, that Airmen can be court-martialed under Article 134.

For questions about these or other elements of the UCMJ, contact any of the military justice attorneys in the 21st Space Wing Base Legal Office. As a reminder, legal assistance walk-in hours are from 8-9 a.m. Monday and Wednesday, and from 1-2 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.

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