Martial law is a concept usually discussed with derision and fear among preppers, and with good reason. Any declaration of martial law in the United States is an obvious symptom that something bad has happened, perhaps something society-alteringly bad.
Visions of people being dragged out of their homes, held without cause or warrant, random checkpoints and equally random searches abound. All this won’t be done by police officers but instead by uniformed soldiers operating out of camouflaged armored vehicles.
It is a genuinely scary prospect because it strikes at the heart of what guarantees our inborn rights as Americans: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
But is it true? Would our military, are uniformed protectors, actually trample on our rights as citizens? Would you and I and everyone we know see our constitutional rights discarded under martial law?
It’s sad to say, but in a grave enough situation, yes, yes we probably would. The only real question is just how bad it would be.
In this article, we’ll discuss what martial law actually is, what you can expect to lose as far as your rights are concerned, and what rights, maybe, you’ll get to keep for the duration.
Martial Law Defined
Martial law entails a lot of changes to the status quo of law and order over U.S. citizens, but in recent years it has taken on an almost mythical status in the minds of some people, becoming a sort of boogeyman.
When martial law is declared over a region of the US or even over the entire country, what it means simply that the military has assumed control of law enforcement and keeping order over civilian populations in lieu of local government and typical police.
Martial law is declared at the federal level by the President of the United States, and at the state level, within the confines of the state, by the state’s governor.
Stated plainly, the military will be in charge of your area, your state or even the entire country, lock, stock and smoking gun barrels. It is commonly thought that the mass deployment of military forces, including the National Guard, to an area means that martial law has been enacted.
This is not the case. Domestic abuse and employment of military troops is a common occurrence for disaster relief and every time that the state’s interest needs a lot of extra manpower. It does not mean martial law has been declared or is in effect.
These more pedestrian military deployments do not entail the suspension of any civil rights even though the police and other state powers may have the rule of law on their side for forcing evacuation.
The most important distinction is that under martial law the ranking military officer in command of the force on the ground will become the head of civilian government for the duration.
Martial law is declared only rarely in the US compared to other places around the world, but you should expect to see it enacted, if only on a local level, whenever our government wants to ensure the “safety”, stability and good order of a populace in the aftermath of a severe disaster or some majorly threatening event like foreign invasion.
We may also see it declared on a smaller or larger scale if serious anti-government agitation and civil unrest goes un-quelled and a city for a length of time or when it turns actively violent towards the government.
You can bet your bottom dollar that any attempt to overthrow or destabilize the legitimate government will see martial law enacted instantly.
New Sheriff in Town: Martial Law and You
When martial law is in effect, civilians live under military law and military enforcement of that law. That means that any crimes and violations will be tried in military court as military legal proceedings.
This is an important distinction you must understand. Perhaps most vitally, habeas corpus will be suspended. Habeas corpus is a right requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into a courtroom if they feel they’ve been unlawfully detained, i.e. is a civic requirement for a court of law to determine that a person’s detainment is lawful.
Most sobering, the suspension of habeas corpus means that, at least in theory, U.S. citizens may be detained with no explanation for why, and no recourse through a typical court of law in opposition of it.
You could be tossed in a military holding cell and left there, flapping in the breeze indefinitely under martial law.
The good news doesn’t stop there, however. Here are some other rights on the Bill of Rights you can expect to be pencil out while living under martial law. Wave goodbye to:
- 1st Amendment – Freedom of Speech, Assembly and the Press
- 2nd Amendment – Right to Bear Arms
- 3rd Amendment – Freedom from Housing Soldiers
- 4th Amendment – Protection from Unreasonable Search and Seizure
- 5th Amendment – Protection to Life, Liberty and Property
You should absolutely expect your freedom of speech as well as freedom of the press to be harshly curtailed under martial law, especially if it’s the reason for in the first place.
Citizens agitating against their government or publishing politically-charged media that may “inflame” the crisis will be stopped. Likewise any fresh ill sentiment against your newly-minted military overlords will be similarly put down.
And don’t even think about gathering in public or in large groups organizing for any particular purpose; there’s a surefire way to make your rulers nervous.
You can also expect door-to-door searches to search for and seize firearms. Small arms in the hands of citizenry have long been a check and major thorn in the side of people who are trying to exert control over a populace.
One need not look too far back in United States history to see the first tender threads of this behavior emerging. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina after it struck the Gulf Coast of the United States police and military both engaged in confiscatory behavior regarding citizens’ rights to keep and bear arms.
This took place in and around New Orleans. We saw it then, as ever, done under the auspices of public safety or some other mealy-mouthed counterfeit civil good.
Also consider that demands for housing, storage and logistical requirements for outfitting and mobilizing a large military force will mean that you might in fact see your private property confiscated, or if not confiscated “temporarily repurposed”, for the storage of military men and material.
Your government and military thanks you for your cooperation citizen, and reminds you that any complaining or resistance to your ordered voluntarism is a crime, and will be punished!
In keeping with the theme of new ownership over civic property absolutely expect to have all of your holdings searched or inspected at any time for any reason.
Be it rooting out dissenters, looking for criminal malcontents, or hunting for newly classified contraband material the outcome will be all the same: you’ll have soldiers knocking on your door demanding that you open up at the most inopportune and inconvenient times.
You no longer have the right to be free from unreasonable searches, or seizure of your property.
That is doubly troubling for preppers who have laboriously and meticulously accumulated preps of food, medical supplies and other provisions can see them confiscated for the greater good by military personnel.
Imagine, all the time, effort and money you spent ahead to be prepared, to be ready, and some goons march in and take it all away. Feels bad, man.
Lastly, your life is about to get a whole lot more orderly whether you want it to or not. Curfews will be a certainty.
Movement in, out and around the area affected by martial law will be watched, curtailed or halted. You may be expected to check in with the new local authority for any number of reasons.
A sort of civic work conscription may be put in effect. You may be expected to answer questions, or volunteer information about your property or your skills that could be useful.
In short, in a worst-case scenario, things will look awfully totalitarian under martial law.
A Glimmer of Hope
There is one hope, one mad hope that we can trust to preserve our rights under martial law.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled against the federal government in times past, and people in the United States were to be tried and sentenced under martial law successfully argued their case in front of the highest court authority in the land.
So perhaps your rights as an accused person in a criminal case, codified by Amendment 6 of the United States Bill of Rights, may still be in effect under martial law. Amendment 6 of the Bill of Rights reads:
“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”Bill of Rights
We take for granted in the United States that martial law has scarcely been imposed here, even compared to other Western countries. Around the world, governments impose martial law at the drop of a hat in order to consolidate their power or to quell unruly populace.
In defense of the above, we have little evidence but we can turn to one pivotal and old case: Ex parte Milligan, 71 US 2, 1866.
In this case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that military trial of United States citizens while civilian courts were still functional was unconstitutional.
The specifics revolved around the military trial of four men, Lambdon, P. Milligan, Stephen Horsey, William A. Bowles and Andrew Humphreys all of whom were accused of a slew of charges, including rebellion against United States government, and offering aid and comfort to Confederate forces.
The trial began in October of 1864, before the end of the United States Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, president of the Union, wanted to deal with dissenters, deserters, spies, saboteurs and other undesirables within the U.S. by allowing them to be tried under martial law via military tribunal.
His authorizing act effectively suspended habeas corpus throughout the entirety of the United States in April of 1861.
All four men were found guilty and sentenced. Three of them, Milligan included, were sentenced to hang. It was not until May of 1865 when Milligan’s legal counsel petitioned the Circuit Court of the United States for habeas corpus, which, as defined above, is the right to call for justification of a citizen’s arrest and detainment for a crime.
Two Circuit Court judges who reviewed the petition could not come to agreement about the matter, and handed the case to the United States Supreme Court.
On March 5th and March 13th of 1866 the case was argued. The Supreme Court’s decision, ruling that such military trials were unconstitutional while civilian courts were still operational was handed down on April 3rd 1866.
What does Ex parte Milligan Mean to Us?
Ex parte Milligan is well-known among the legal scholars as one of the premier Supreme Court cases finding the president United States operating in excessive of his legal powers in regards to suppression of dissent.
It also showed that emergency military action, at least as it pertained to civilians in times of martial law or war, has limits.
Perhaps most tellingly, well after the fact that the prisoners’ sentences were commuted or rendered into lesser ones, some of them sought justification and legal reparation in the aftermath.
Read between the lines: they had to go back into court. They had to seek reparation in court.
If things have gotten so bad that civilian courts are not operating, you are one hundred percent out of luck.
You’ll be completely dependent upon the morality and virtue of military officers and military justice system in the area where martial law is declared.
Your chances of fair and equitable treatment are hard to say. I suppose your opinion depends upon your view of our government and the military.
If you believe that our military men and women in uniform honor, serve by and take seriously their oaths to defend the United States Constitution then you may believe you’ll get a fair Shake.
If you believe, however, that our government is already irretrievably corrupt, and that corruption will trickle down into our military and has already trickled down into our legal system writ large, then any detainment under martial law could possibly be a life sentence.
Reacting to Martial Law
Your reaction to martial law will depend almost entirely on the situation at large and your personal goals.
If you expect things to go along as they always have in nicer, normal times you should probably go on and curb your expectations.
Your day today experience will be largely affected by how stringently martial law is being enforced, meaning what prohibitions are being enacted by the ranking military commander, as well as how densely populated your town or region are with those forces.
If you live in a sparsely populated or rural area chances are martial law will be sporadically enforced at best, if at all.
Densely populated towns and cities, especially ones near important infrastructure, industrial and commercial hubs, and military bases will be much more enthusiastically enforced.
It stands to reason that the best response to martial law, if you want to remain un-detained and not get beaten up, is to go along, not make trouble, stay out of sight and generally don’t be a pain in the ass.
Of course, if the martial law is itself making your survival efforts extremely difficult or your living situation untenable then that may not be an option.
What would you do if you’re being forcibly relocated, or your house taken over for government purposes? What would you do if your arms and supplies are being seized either for security or for redistribution?
What would you do if there is a stop-travel order, but you are desperate to leave a deteriorating situation? All of these scenarios are eminently possible under martial law.
You need to think through your possible responses and now, while you can, before such a situation happens.
All of the above are real life outcomes resulting from martial law around the world. You are right, and justified, to be nervous about them.
All the above theoretical situations are good reasons why you should seek to live out and away from major population centers, areas that are less likely be put under the boot heel of martial law. Even so, you may not be entirely safe.
If you’ve been blabbing for weeks and months to neighbors, friends, strangers and so forth about your massive stash of food, or guns and ammo, you should definitely expect to get a door-knock from some dudes in camouflage if martial law is declared in your region or a nearby city.
Consider that be another good reason to keep your business about your prepping strictly to yourself and those inside your circle of trust.
If you have the misfortune to be living in a major urban area when martial law is declared, you’ll need to make a choice, and quickly.
While it is unlikely in any event that martial law will lead to serious totalitarianism and abuses in the short term, history has furnished too many examples of exactly that happening for us to ignore.
If you can get out of the city and go to your bug-out location or stay with someone away from the affected area you should probably do that.
You will have a certain amount of reactionary time to enact your Escape Plan before the area gets totally locked down or movement becomes too difficult or impossible.
If you cannot leave or are unwilling to leave you should just try to abide the way things are as best you can. Martial law is unlikely to go on forever in the United States unless the entire nation is in jeopardy.
Know that if you decide to stay, ignore the authority in place whether you think it’s legitimate or not, and make yourself a pain in the butt remind yourself that you’ll be dealing with professional soldiers from various branches, and those soldiers will have all manner of equipment and plenty of experience with dealing with dissent in civilian populations.
They have after all been doing exactly that for the majority of the 21st century so far.
As much as you may hate it, and as rough that as it may be living under martial law, it can be a whole lot worse if you are detained by a military force with no check on their authority.
Don’t risk it. Get away if you can to quieter pastures and if you can’t try to abide and hang onto as much of your stuff as you can.
Martial law is rarely declared in the United States, but when it is, civilian rights are harshly curtailed, most significantly the right of habeas corpus.
We do not have a large body of experience to draw on in the United States with regards to civilian interactions with military forces under martial law. It is still better to be safe than sorry.
Understand what the worst case scenario is, and how you met best mitigate it. The best course of action is to get out from under martial law in an affected area.
Be sure to print out and follow our martial law checklist, and don’t forget to pin this article on Pinterest for later!
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.