Military officers, cadets, and midshipmen are held to the highest personal and professional standards. When those standards are not met, officers may be administratively punished or even criminally prosecuted for violating Article 133, UCMJ, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.
When your military career, future, and freedom are on the line, you need an experienced law firm in your corner. The attorneys at MJA are all military officers who served on active duty and have defended against some of the most serious offenses under the UCMJ. Contact one of our military defense lawyers today to learn more.
Definition and Elements
Conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman is defined as any “action or behavior in an official capacity which, in dishonoring or disgracing the person as an officer, seriously compromises the officer’s character as a gentleman, or action or behavior in an unofficial or private capacity which, in dishonoring or disgracing the officer personally, seriously compromises the person’s standing as an officer.” The term “gentleman” includes both male and female commissioned officers, cadets, and midshipmen.
To be guilty of violating Article 133, the Government must prove two elements:
(1) That the officer, cadet or midshipman did or omitted to do a certain act; and
(2) That, under the circumstances, the act or omission constitutes conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.
Because of how vague the elements and definition are, conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman is one of the most nebulous and abused charges under the UCMJ.
Conduct Unbecoming Explained
Generally speaking, Article 133 prohibits conduct by a commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman which compromises their standing as an officer and as a gentleman. Contrary to popular belief and depictions in movies, enlisted service members cannot be charged with “conduct unbecoming” in violation of Article 133. This charge is reserved solely for officers, cadets, and midshipmen.
The offense of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” is based on the idea that officers are expected to possess certain moral attributes that make them fit to lead. For example, an officer who is dishonest, unfair in his treatment of others, indecent, indecorous, lawless, unjust, or cruel should not be leading our nation’s sons and daughters.
Article 133 explains that while officers should not be held to unrealistically high moral standards, the “customs of the service and military necessity” do require a basic minimum which all officers must meet without seriously compromising their standing or character as a leader.
Importantly, Article 133 includes acts that are also punishable under other UCMJ articles, provided that the misconduct also amounts to conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. For example, a commissioned officer who steals property may be charged with violating both conduct unbecoming (Article 133) and larceny (Article 121).
Examples of Conduct Unbecoming
The Manual for Courts-Martial provides a number of examples of conduct which could be considered unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. These include:
- knowingly making a false official statement;
- dishonorable failure to pay a debt; cheating on an exam;
- opening and reading a letter of another without authority;
- using insulting or defamatory language to another officer in that officer’s presence or about that officer to other military persons;
- being drunk and disorderly in a public place;
- public association with known prostitutes;
- committing or attempting to commit a crime involving moral turpitude;
- and failing without good cause to support the officer’s family.
But these are only examples. Officers under investigation for almost any type of misconduct (including non-criminal offenses) are often hit with “conduct unbecoming” allegations as a type of catch-all charge.
Military courts have previously found that it was NOT conduct unbecoming a senior officer to merely loan money to a subordinate or for an officer to visit a legal brothel with enlisted members where the officer did not seek or engage in sex. These cases are exceptions, however, and should not be used as a guide for acceptable conduct.
Any defense for conduct unbecoming an officer is highly fact specific. In some cases there may be no direct or circumstantial evidence to corroborate the allegation, or it may be that the complaining witness has a motive to make a false allegation, all of which are relevant to defending against the charge.
Additionally, commands often try to punish officers for conduct that is merely inappropriate or unsuitable. That is not the legal standard. Rather than simply lacking good taste, “unbecoming conduct” means conduct that is “morally unfitting and unworthy.” A skillful attorney can identify deficiencies in the Government’s case and ensure that all relevant facts are brought to light.
The maximum punishment for conduct unbecoming an officer is dismissal (the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge), forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for a period not to exceed that authorized for the most analogous offense for which a punishment is prescribed in this Manual, or, if none is prescribed, for 1 year.
Protect Your Freedom and Military Career
When your career, freedom, and future are on the line, you need an experienced law firm in your corner. The skilled and assertive attorneys at Military Justice Attorneys will zealously fight for you. We have defended service members facing investigation, trial, and discipline for the most serious offenses under the UCMJ, and will ensure that every avenue of defense is aggressively pursued on your behalf.
Call us today at (843) 773-5501 for a free consultation.
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