Is It Better to Be Prosecuted in a Military Court or a Civilian Court?

I get this question fairly regularly, for a couple of reasons. First, because I practice exclusively criminal defense in southeastern Virginia, a large percentage of my clients are military. Second, not many attorneys around here practice in civilian courts as well as military courts, so few attorneys know the differences between the various systems. But the short answer to this question is: "it depends". Clients hate this answer because it sounds like the lawyer is being evasive, but the reality is that it truly does depend, and here is why.

First and foremost, there are certain offenses that are a big deal in the military, but might result in misdemeanor charges and minor penalties in state court. A good example is possession of a controlled substance. In civilian court, these charges often result in placement in the first offender program (if the defendant is eligible), which really is just probation, some classes, and a six month license suspension. On the other hand, in military court possession of controlled substances can easily result in many months in the brig, depending upon the circumstances. That is not to say that jail time is not possible in the civilian side, because it most certainly is, but simply that jail time is a virtual certainty in military court if you are convicted of this offense.

Similarly, if you don't come to work as a civilian, you might get fired. But if you continually don't come to work in the military, you will likely face court-martial, and potentially a long term in the brig. Same goes for disrespecting your boss. This is bad for your career as a civilian, but it can be bad for your freedom in the military. So in this way, there are some offenses that are better heard in civilian court than court martial.

On the other hand, there are other offenses that are much better in the military system. A good example is possession of child pornography. The problem with this offense in the federal and state systems (particularly federal) is that the sentencing guidelines are brutal. They are also somewhat arbitrary. Some prosecutors will charge every image as a separate offense; some will just charge a few and let others slide to keep the sentence reasonable. But the military system has no sentencing guidelines. All the military system has are maximum penalties for each offense. Without sentencing guidelines, an effective defense attorney can get outstanding sentences in military court on child pornography cases; often times just a fraction of what would be imposed in the state or federal system.

There are differences in procedure as well. In military cases, the prosecutor must turn over virtually all the evidence in the case, and must do so early in the process. Civilian discovery (particularly in state court) is far more limited. For this reason, it is much more difficult to anticipate what the prosecutor will do in civilian court.

There are countless other differences, far more than I can explain in this posting. But what should matter to you is that your lawyer understands these differences.

If you are facing criminal charges, and you are in the military, you owe it to yourself to contact an attorney who knows both the civilian and military systems inside and out... and I can tell you that there are few of us around who do. Do your homework, and make sure that you are dealing with a lawyer who can fight for you wherever your charges ultimately end up. Contact us, we are here to help!

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