Understanding Sentencing for Military Personnel Convicted of Sexual Assault in Washington State

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Sexual assault is a serious crime with severe consequences, regardless of whether it occurs in civilian or military contexts. However, when military personnel are convicted of sexual assault, the sentencing process and potential penalties can differ from civilian court cases. In Washington State, military members found guilty of sexual assault face a range of consequences within the military justice system.

UCMJ and Sexual Assault Charges/Sentencing

The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is the foundation of the military justice system and applies to all active duty service members, including those stationed or based in Washington State. Under the UCMJ, sexual assault offenses are outlined in several key articles:

Article 120 – Rape and Sexual Assault: This covers a range of sexual act offenses committed by force, threats, rendering another person unconscious, or against a person incapable of consenting. Potential punishments include dishonorable discharge, confinement for life, and forfeiture of pay and allowances.

Article 120b – Rape and Sexual Assault of a Child: This prohibits rape or sexual assault of a child under the age of 16. It carries a maximum punishment of confinement for life.

Article 120c – Other Sexual Misconduct: This includes offenses like indecent viewing/recording, forcible pandering, and indecent exposure. Maximum punishment is confinement for 1 year.

When a service member is charged under these articles, military judges or panel members consider a range of factors in determining the sentence. Factors like the victim’s age, the degree of force used, and the accused’s rank/responsibilities can impact sentencing severity.

For the most serious offenses of rape, sexual assault by force, or child sexual offenses, those convicted commonly face lengthy prison sentences, punitive discharges terminating their military service, reductions in rank, forfeitures of pay, and sex offender registration requirements.

Penalties for Convicted Military Personnel

If convicted of sexual assault under the UCMJ, military personnel in Washington State can face a variety of penalties, including:

Prison Sentences: Depending on the nature and severity of the offense, convicted service members may receive lengthy prison sentences. For the most serious sexual assault offenses, maximum penalties can include life imprisonment.

– Punitive Discharges: In addition to confinement, those convicted may receive a punitive discharge, such as a Dishonorable Discharge or Bad Conduct Discharge, effectively terminating their military service under dishonorable conditions.

– Fines and Forfeitures: Financial penalties like fines, partial forfeitures of pay and allowances, or a complete forfeiture of all pay and allowances are also potential consequences.

– Reduction in Rank: Convicted military personnel may be reduced in rank or grade as part of their sentence.

– Sex Offender Registration: Depending on the offense, convicted service members may be required to register as sex offenders, potentially impacting future employment and living situations for a lifetime.  

Beyond these direct sentencing consequences, those convicted of sexual assault while serving also face long-term impacts on their military careers and benefits.

The Military Judicial Process

Sexual assault cases involving military personnel are handled through the military justice system, following procedures outlined in the UCMJ and its implementing regulations. Key aspects of this process include:

  • Investigation: When allegations of sexual assault arise, specialized investigators from military criminal investigative organizations conduct inquiries to gather evidence and testimonies.
  • Preferral of Charges: Based on the investigative findings, the Office of Special Trial Counsel may prefer formal charges against the accused service member, initiating court-martial proceedings.
  • Article 32 Preliminary Hearing: Similar to a civilian grand jury process, a Preliminary Hearing Officer reviews the evidence and determines if there is sufficient basis to proceed with a court-martial (trial).
  • Court-Martial: The trial itself follows rules of evidence and procedure similar to civilian criminal trials, with the opportunity for the accused to mount a legal defense and face their accuser(s).
  • Sentencing: If found guilty, the court-martial panel, or Military Judge, determines an appropriate sentence based on the specific charges, evidence presented, and other factors.
  • Potential for Appeals: Like the civilian justice system, those convicted by court-martial have the ability to appeal the verdict and/or sentence through higher military courts.

The Military Investigative and Court-Martial Process

Sexual assault allegations against military personnel initiate a comprehensive process overseen by commanders, legal experts, and military criminal investigative agencies:

Investigation: Investigations are handled by specialized units like the Army’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), or Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). They gather evidence, conduct interviews, and determine if probable cause exists sufficient evidence exists to warrant potential charges.

Pre-Trial Proceedings: If charges are preferred, the case proceeds to an Article 32 preliminary hearing overseen by a Preliminary Hearing Officer. This determines if probable cause exists to move forward with a court-martial.

The Role of Commanders: Commanders have considerable authority in the military justice process. They make initial determination on preferring charges, and decide the level of court-in certain types of cases

The Roles of JAGs/Military Lawyers: Judge Advocate General (JAG) officers serve as military prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges. The trial counsel (prosecutor) and defense counsel prepare and argue the case before a panel of military officers. The Office of Special Trial Counsel prefers charges in serious cases.

Court-Martial Proceedings: General courts-martial for the most serious offenses involve a military judge, full trial proceedings with rules of evidence, opportunity to call witnesses, and sentencing by the panel, or military judge, if convicted.

Key Differences from Civilian Trials: No constitutional right to a jury of civilian peers. Judges and panel members are active-duty military. Sentencing allows for punitive discharges and other military-specific punishments.

Appeals: Those convicted in courts-martial have the ability to appeal to higher military appeals courts, eventually reaching the civilian U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Long-Term Consequences for Convicted Military Personnel

In addition to confinement sentences, those convicted of sexual assault face harsh long-term impacts on their military careers and futures:

Punitive Discharges: Dishonorable or Bad Conduct discharges permanently terminate military service and accompany many sexual offense convictions. These can severely limit future employment, benefits, and social standing.

– Sex Offender Registration: Depending on the offense, convicted service members may be required to register as sex offenders for life, impacting residence and employment options.

– Loss of Military Benefits: Punitive discharges typically result in complete forfeiture of military retirement pay, healthcare, education benefits like the GI Bill, and other privileges.

– Employment Barriers: With a dishonorable discharge and potential sex offender status, obtaining civilian employment post-conviction can be very difficult, especially in fields requiring security clearances or work with children/vulnerable populations.


Facing sexual assault charges in the military can derail your career and future. If convicted, you risk lengthy prison time, a dishonorable discharge, and lifelong sex offender registration requirements. Don’t go through this alone.

At Military Trial Defenders, our experienced attorneys defend service members in Washington State against UCMJ violations. We’ll fight to protect your rights and obtain the best possible outcome. Contact us immediately to start building a strong defense strategy – your freedom and reputation are at stake.



Call us today at 1-877-619-9657


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