Nolo Contendere and the UCMJ

Civilian law and military laws follow many of the same statutes, but military personnel are often held to higher standards than civilians. Civilians have the option to plead nolo contendere or no contest to their charges. The same rights are not extended to military personnel.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), military personnel do not have the option to plead nolo contendere to charges against them. They must admit guilt to some or all of the charges against them or plead not guilty. The following pleas are admissible in a court-martial, the military’s version of a trial:

  • Guilty
  • Not guilty as charged, but guilty of a lesser offense included in the charge
  • Guilty with exceptions, with or without substitutions
  • Not guilty to exceptions, but guilty to substitutions
  • Not guilty

Why is a plea of nolo contendere inadmissible under the UCMJ?

In civilian courts, the main goal is to protect the safety of the public, keep the peace, and prevent harmful behavior. In the military, however, the main goals of criminal proceedings are order and discipline.

A plea of nolo contendere means the accused accepts punishment without admitting guilt. This contradicts the intent behind a court-martial – to determine innocence or guilt and discipline accordingly. Thus, a member of the military must honestly believe himself or herself to be guilty to enter a guilty plea, and a judge must confirm that guilt.

Eliminating the option for a nolo contendere plea may sound harsh, but the military operates quite differently than civilian courts. In civilian courts, a guilty plea moves a trial directly to sentencing in most cases. However, in military law, an investigation or “Care” inquiry happens after a guilty plea. When a member of the military pleads guilty, the judge then carries the responsibility of determining or confirming that guilt.

Further, members of the military are not allowed to plead guilty to charges that may result in the death penalty. Because the punishment of death is so severe, the writers of the UCMJ stipulated that cases involving the death penalty should be decided by a jury rather than a single judge after a guilty plea.

The sole purpose of a court-martial is to determine guilt. As such, defendants are not allowed to accept punishment they don’t justly deserve by pleading nolo contendere.


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