Silence is Golden: Article 31 rights explained

  • Published
  • By Captains Patrick Schwomeyer & Todd Fanniff
  • Ramstein Area Defense Counsel
You are face to face in an interview room with agents of the Office of Special Investigations or members of the security police. You are suspected of committing a crime. Your heart is racing. You're short of breath. They say to you, "You have the right to remain silent. Any statement you make, oral or written, may be used against you in a trial by court-martial. Do you want a lawyer? Are you willing to answer any questions?"

You might be wondering what options you have if this should ever happen to you. That's not surprising, because very few Air Force members are familiar with Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

Article 31 gives all military members a very important right. It states that no person suspected of an offense can be compelled to answer any question if the answer may tend to be incriminating. What this means is quite simple: every person being interrogated as a suspect by the OSI, the security police, the commander, the Shirt, your supervisor, or any other person working for the government has the legal right to politely refuse to answer questions, and the legal right to speak with an attorney.

Now, why might the person being interviewed want to remain silent until speaking with an attorney? It may be that they don't know whether they did anything illegal - and they want to find out before getting themselves in deeper trouble. It may be that they did do something wrong - and recognize that, by confessing, they would just be helping the prosecution put together an air-tight case. Or it may be that they're just nervous - and want some time to think over their options.

 Whatever the reason, if a suspect exercises his right to remain silent, which is usually the smartest thing to do, the fact that he was unwilling to answer questions can't be used against him.

Once a suspect states that he is not willing to answer questions and wishes to speak with an attorney, the interviewer by law must immediately terminate the interview. The interviewer is not permitted in any way to encourage the suspect to answer questions. 

For instance, the interviewer may not say "Well, that's too bad - if you won't answer questions, I won't be able to testify later in your behalf," or, "if you provide a statement now, your commander will probably be more lenient." This is not allowed.

In summary, Article 31 exists to protect you, but only if you choose to take advantage of it!

Call the Area Defense Counsel at DSN 480-2182 if you any questions about your rights under the UCMJ.