Silence is golden: Article 31 rights explained

by Capt. Patrick Schwomeyer and Capt. Todd Fanniff
Ramstein Area Defense Counsel

You are in an interview room face-to-face 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. This means every person being interrogated as a suspect by the OSI, the security police, the commander, “The Shirt,” a 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 want to find out before getting themselves into 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 he was unwilling to answer questions can’t be used against him.

Once a suspect states 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.

Article 31 exists to protect you, but only if you choose to take advantage of it.
Call the Area Defense Counsel at 480-2182 with any questions about rights under the UCMJ.