Members can be discharged for misconduct on the basis of:
- minor disciplinary infractions,
- a pattern of misconduct,
- commission of a serious offense (including drug use), and
- civilian conviction.
Seeking a misconduct discharge is an extreme measure for getting out of the military. Unlike separations for unsatisfactory performance or other designated physical and mental conditions, a misconduct separation indicates that the member is at fault or to blame for his or her behavior. Because the military regards drug use as behavior for which the individual is culpable, it generally processes these cases for a discharge on the grounds of misconduct.
This involuntary discharge will normally be characterized as Under Other Than Honorable Conditions. A General (or, very rarely, Honorable) characterization may be given where the misconduct is minor, there are strong mitigating circumstances, or (in all branches but the Navy) the member is allowed to make a conditional waiver of rights in exchange for a General characterization.
Members facing the prospect of a misconduct discharge will most often want to fight separation for misconduct in order to avoid characterization of Under Other Than Honorable Conditions. Members may be facing dual processing for misconduct and a more favorable discharge. Misconduct processing may also be initiated as improper punishment of members for asserting their rights.
Offenses resulting in a misconduct discharge are usually also punishable by court-martial. Rather than preferring charges against a member, commands may opt for the administrative procedure of misconduct separation, thus depriving members of the judicial protections available in a court-martial setting. On the other hand, if a member is acquitted at court-martial, the command may sometimes still proceed with a misconduct discharge.
Each Service interprets the DoD guidelines for the four categories of misconduct offenses and drug abuse in various levels of detail. The Army is the most general while the Navy and Air Force are more specific. Additionally, different commands vary in their interpretation of the regulations. If a member has committed a series of minor infractions or a pattern of misconduct, the commander is not necessarily obligated to initiate discharge. Some commands will overlook conduct that others use as a basis for discharge.