Advise Airmen of rights before asking questions

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Erick Bensen
  • 56th Security Forces Squadron

Every day supervisors are faced with challenging scenarios and situations that require them to engage in efforts to help their Airmen. When this engagement is due to a negative act such as theft, damage to property or other possible legal violations, we must resist the instinct to question them directly.

One scenario I am presented with all too often is when an Airman is caught driving under the influence. Of course we want to know what happened and what the Airman was thinking. We want to ask where they were and what their plan was. We want to know who was with them and many other variables so we can paint ourselves a picture as to what happened. However, we have to do one thing first. If you suspect them of committing a crime you must advise them of their rights before asking those questions.

All Airmen are protected against self-incrimination under Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A long time ago, our leadership recognized that an abuse of position power existed if someone could be forced to make a false confession or worse, and now our Article 31 rights prevent this from happening.

Step one in these situations is to advise the Airman of his rights. Under Article 31, in the UCMJ, we have the right to remain silent. We also have the right to know what we are being accused of. Any statements may be used as evidence in a trial by court-martial, nonjudicial punishment or administrative action. We all have a right to consult a lawyer and to have them present during an interview. The Area Defense Council is provided at no cost to the member.

The safest way to ensure you present these rights to your Airman is with an Air Force Form 1168. The Airman is presented with the accusation being considered, initials to confirm notification of their rights and then is presented with the opportunity to give their side of the story or not. For impromptu situations, it is best to have an Air Force Visual Aid 31-231, Advisement of Rights, card and it is always important to have a witness. When we fail to advise our Airmen of their rights, the ADC can potentially turn any evidence gathered from the interview into kindling. While not getting answers can be frustrating to the supervisor, the protection of our individual rights and the rights of the Air Force is more important. Accused personnel have the right against self-incrimination, and the Air Force has to be able to rely on a fair and just legal system.

Of course, many scenarios that supervisors face are not clear cut. We often do not know if a criminal act was committed, and we have many conversations with our Airmen to understand what is going on, especially when something seems off. These conversations are very important, but please remember that when an indication of a criminal act is made, the conversation needs to stop, and that Airman must be advised of their rights before you continue. We need to take care of our Airmen, but we must also hold them accountable.

Finally, when in doubt call your respective first sergeant or the legal office for clear guidance.