Appearing in uniform in civilian court
By Capt. Anthony Coggin, 21st Space Wing staff judge advocate
/ Published March 04, 2008
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
You're sitting at a traffic light one day when a car blows through a red light in front of you and broadsides another car that was in the process of turning. The accident proves to be fatal, and you are the only witness. You receive a subpoena to testify downtown at the criminal trial of the driver who ran the red light. What should you do? And just as important, what shouldn't you do?
Another day a friend approaches you and says that she is being sued by her ex-husband for custody of their only child. She asks if you will testify on her behalf in a civil proceeding regarding her fitness as a parent. Again, what should you do or not do?
Or, you receive a traffic citation off base for speeding. You would like to go to court in uniform to hopefully better your chances with the judge. Is this a good idea?
Typically, testifying as a witness in a civilian court in your personal capacity is not going to create a conflict with your military service. The scenarios above are examples of when testifying in your personal capacity would likely be permissible. Generally, Air Force personnel may appear and testify in private litigation in an unofficial capacity as long as the Air Force has no particular interest in the outcome of the litigation, the government incurs no expense, and the information you will testify about is not otherwise prohibited from disclosure. Per Air Force Instruction 51-301, you must first get permission from the legal office before testifying as a witness in a civilian court even if subpoenaed.
However, if you testify in your personal capacity, or otherwise appear in a civilian court, it is important to remember that you cannot wear your uniform. The third scenario above is a good example of how not to appear in a civilian court. AFI 51-301 strictly prohibits Air Force members from appearing in uniform in a civilian court proceeding if the member is doing so in a personal capacity. The reasoning behind this is that the Air Force aims to remain neutral in any civilian matter that it is not directly involved in and has no interest in the outcome.
By wearing your uniform, you might suggest to the judge, jury or the public that the Air Force supports the side for which you are testifying or otherwise appearing. The only time you should appear in uniform is if you're doing so in a military proceeding, such as a court-martial, administrative discharge board or if you receive permission to testify in your official capacity in a civilian proceeding.
For more information, contact the legal office at 556-4871.