Article 15... Now what? Ask the ADC!
By Capt. Scott Taylor, Vandenberg Area Defense Cousel
/ Published October 30, 2012
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- What an Article 15 means for you
Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice is an avenue for commanders to provide discipline that will not result in a Federal conviction, as opposed to a courts-martial. The legal office typically advises units to engage in progressive discipline, which means when an Airman has a discipline issue, commanders should start with the lowest form of discipline in the discipline toolkit. As behavior continues without modification, the legal office will advise that discipline becomes harsher. An Article 15 is harsher than a letter of reprimand, but does not rise to the level of a courts-martial. Depending on the conduct involved, commanders may decide to jump straight to an Article 15 or courts-martial, but this is really on a case by case basis.
Once your commander makes a decision to issue you an Article 15, you will be ordered to your commander's office so he can formally tell you he is offering you the Article 15 forum. You generally have three days to respond to your commander, either orally or in writing. If you need additional time to respond, and have a good reason why you need more time, your commander can grant you a delay. The local Area Defense Counsel can assist you in understanding your rights throughout the process and help you in preparing your response. It is important that any response you make should be in your own words, so we will not write your response for you, but will take a look at it to make sure you are articulating your position well and not stating something that will not get you in additional trouble.
Article 15 Forum
Contrary to popular belief, when you accept an Article 15, you are not stating you are guilty. When offered an Article 15, you will get a chance to see all the evidence that your commander has when deciding to offer you the forum. You have the option to accept the Article 15 or turn it down. You can look at all of the issues in your case, including any legal issues that would impact whether some of the evidence against you could be admitted in court. We will discuss the evidence against you, and more importantly how that evidence could be presented in court. You will get a very frank assessment of the pros and cons of turning an Article 15 down and potentially going to courts-martial. When you turn down an Article 15, you could receive paperwork like a letter of counseling or a letter of reprimand, or you could be taken to a court-martial. Your commander could decide that there is not enough evidence against you and take no action. All of these options are available to your commander, and you have no guarantees what action will be taken when you turn down the forum.
Not a Guilty Plea
Choosing to accept an Article 15 is in no way admitting guilt. Certainly, some people who accept an Article 15 have committed the offense and a written response will largely be aimed at reducing punishment from your commander. You can absolutely accept an Article 15 and make a case to your commander that you are not guilty of the offense. So, why would you accept the Article 15 forum if you are not guilty? If you turn it down, you could be facing a courts-martial. If you go to trial and lose, it will result in a federal conviction on your record. Even if you receive no punishment, you will still have the stain of a federal conviction. That will impact and limit your ability to get a job, or obtain a security clearance. That federal conviction will follow you around for the rest of your life, and will negatively impact your life forever. You need to weigh the risks and benefits of accepting the limited punishments available to your commander as well as a potential involuntary discharge which might come after the Article 15 versus the risk of the federal conviction and increased punishments at courts-martial. Every case is different, and you should consult with any Area Defense Counsel about the appropriate course of action in your case.
Punishment for an Article 15 depends on the rank of the accuser and the rank of the accused. Instead of researching punishments yourself, talk to an Area Defense Counsel and they can fully explain your options as well as the punishment you might receive. An Article 15 could carry such punishments as reduction in rank (enlisted only), confinement, a reprimand, extra duties, a forfeiture of pay, or no punishment. This list is not exhaustive, but highlights the more common punishments you can expect. Whatever the punishment, you do have the right to appeal that decision. You must prepare an appeal within five days, and your case will be reviewed by higher authorities. Your appeal is focused on an unjust punishment or a punishment disproportionate to the offense committed. You also need to be aware, that you could be facing an administrative discharge after receiving an Article 15. For members that are entitled to a discharge board, there is nothing that prevents you from asserting to a discharge board that you are innocent of the offense. Just because your commander finds you guilty of the offense does not mean you committed the offense or have been convicted of anything.
If you are facing an Article 15, there are always going to be benefits and negatives of accepting that forum. Accepting an Article 15 assures you will not face a federal conviction, and limits the punishments that can be imposed upon you. An Article 15 is not a guilty plea. You certainly can write a response telling your commander you committed the charged offense if you have good reasons to do so, but you never have to. Often times, an Article 15 is a chance to make the most of a bad situation and limit the damage you could be facing. If and when you are offered an Article 15, always consult with an Area Defense Counsel as soon as you are offered the forum so we can discuss your rights and options.