The Secretary of the Navy has issued a significant change to Article 15/NJP procedures for service personnel assigned to or embarked on a vessel.
The Navy’s vessel exception is part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that allows the Navy to deny service members the right to demand a court-martial instead of nonjudicial punishment (NJP) if they are “attached to or embarked in a vessel.” This exception was created in 1962 to give the Navy more flexibility in disciplining sailors at sea, where conducting a court-martial can be logistically challenging and time-consuming.
The vessel exception has been controversial since its inception, many of us as military defense counsel have been critical of it, arguing that it strips sailors of their due process rights. In recent years, there have been calls to repeal the exception, and in 2023, the Navy announced that it would be expanding the circumstances in which sailors can refuse NJP. That change is here and your military defense lawyer can help you understand the change and how you might benefit from it.
Here is a summary of the Navy’s vessel exception:
- Service members have the right to refuse NJP and demand a court-martial unless they are “attached to or embarked in a vessel.”
- Being “attached to a vessel” means being assigned to a vessel for permanent duty.
- Being “embarked in a vessel” means being on board a vessel for a temporary period of time.
- The vessel exception applies to all vessels, regardless of whether they are deployed or not.
The Navy has interpreted the vessel exception broadly, and it has been used to deny sailors the right to demand a court-martial in a variety of circumstances. For example, the exception has been applied to sailors who were:
- On board a vessel that was docked in a foreign port.
- On board a vessel that was undergoing repairs in a shipyard.
- On board a vessel that was training for a deployment.
Critics argue that the Navy has abused the vessel exception and that it should be repealed. They argue that the exception is no longer necessary, given modern technology that makes it possible to conduct court-martials at sea. They also argue that the exception unfairly denies sailors the right to a fair trial.
The Navy has defended the vessel exception, arguing that it is necessary to maintain discipline at sea. The Navy argues that a court-martial can be a lengthy and disruptive process, and that it is not always possible to conduct one at sea. The Navy also argues that the vessel exception does not deny sailors due process, as they still have the right to appeal an NJP decision.
The change affects those ships in drydock, undergoing long term repairs, or nuclear fuel refueling, as examples.
A final point. If you think your ship was in nonoperational status during the NJP, a military defense lawyer can help you determine an appeal. The message leaves open the possibility that you can have an NJP set aside if the ship was in a nonoperational status and you were properly advised of your rights and given an opportunity to exercise them.