What is Martial Law?

The term martial law is used to describe the use or involvement of the military for law enforcement in a country’s affairs. The laws and protocols regarding martial law are different across the globe.  

Generally, martial law is used when the security of the public is at risk, and the traditional means of maintaining peace in society are no longer sufficient. In the U.S, civilians typically possess the right to avoid getting arrested if they are falsely accused of a crime, and that right is only ceased when martial law is declared. 

Declaration of Martial Law in the U.S. 

When martial law is declared, the power to govern and manage the affairs of the country is ceded to the military to restore order. If law and order are rapidly declining in the country, the president of the United States of America or Congress can declare martial law. 

Martial law is typically the last resort to retain law and order in a country and is used for situations of war or natural disasters due to the potential negative aftermath. The governor of any U.S state or any local military commander can also declare martial law if the situation of their region is beyond the control of authorities.  

For instance, the first declaration of martial law in the U.S was in New Orleans at the time of war in 1812. Martial law has been declared 68 times over the years in the U.S., but it has only been restricted to local areas or some states. 

Non-Martial Law Troop Use in the U.S. 

Without declaring martial law, the federal government can still order federal armed forces to restore law and order in the country. Military troops have been utilized 14 times under the U.S Insurrection Act. 

According to the Posse Comitatus Act, the federal armed forces are prohibited from assisting in law enforcement unless they are authorized by a statute or the Constitution. It only allows the military to assist federal forces, such as the police, in conducting law enforcement, and they cannot secure any federal authority. These active-duty troops are only regulated to assist the civilian police in a few duties. Local military commanders can also deploy troops if there is a threat to civilian lives or destruction of state property. 

Limitations of Martial Law

Generally, the military can only serve national defense. It cannot gain the authority to handle federal affairs such as law enforcement unless it is authorized by the president, in writing, or by following any applicable law. Following are some of the limitations of martial law: 

  • For indirect support to the country, such as aiding law enforcement agencies, the military troops must undergo training and transportation. 
  • In direct support situations, such as physical contact with the offenders in the country, the troops are authorized to conduct traffic control, perform search operations within the country or any state, arrest the offenders, and hold criminal investigations.