What Rights You Will and Won’t You Have During Martial Law

Martial law. The very notion of it makes some preppers tremble, and gaze fearfully to the sky. Those preppers are right to be worried, as any time martial law has been declared, at least in the United States, you can be certain that things have taken a dire turn for the worse.

Martial law means things have gotten bad, perhaps society-shaking bad, and you can be sure that your day-to-day life is not going to be the same for the duration.

Martial law is a frightening thing to consider because it conjures ideas that people can be tossed in jail or detained indefinitely without due process, subject to search and seizure completely on the whims of the government and forced to endure random checkpoints and more infractions of our civil rights, all of this carried out by uniformed soldiers, those who nominally should be protecting us.

The Million Dollar Question is this: would your constitutional rights be abused under a declaration of martial law? In short, yes, almost certainly.

The only question after that is how bad it would get. In today’s article, I’ll tell you what you can expect when martial law is declared, what rights you can expect to lose, and if you are lucky, what rights you can expect to keep.

What is Martial Law?

A declaration of martial law means that military forces are now in charge of keeping order and general law enforcement where typical police forces and local governments would otherwise.

Martial law is enacted at the federal level by the President of the United States, and at the state level, within the confines of a given state, by any state’s governor.

What this means for you, dear prepper, is that uniformed soldiers are going to be in charge of your block, your town and your county, even potentially your entire state.

It is all but certain that a declaration of martial law will also see your civil rights curtailed to a greater or lesser degree. More on that in just a minute.

Note that typical domestic deployment of military forces including the National Guard, even if done en masse, is not a declaration of martial law.

Domestic deployments of military forces are entirely too common for this to be the case, and is often a first-step solution for disaster relief and other initiatives where a local or state government needs a lot of extra manpower.

Just because the military is out in force in a given area does not mean that martial law has been declared.

Compared to other places around the world, even civilized Western nations, martial law is rarely enacted in the United States.

That being said, you should expect to see it enacted more regularly in the not-too-distant future, and probably in increasing frequency.

It should go without saying that any organized, large-scale anti-government activity or serious civil unrest on a local or regional level will see the government declare martial law.

What Does Martial Law Mean for You?

Martial law simply stated means that civilians in the affected area will be living, for the duration of the martial law declaration, under military enforcement, interpretation, and judgment of the law.

If a civilian commits a crime or some other offense in an area currently under martial law, the military will be responsible for handling everything associated with that person’s detainment, trial (if applicable) and sentencing.

Of the greatest concern to the average citizen will be the suspension of civil rights that we typically take for granted during times when martial law is not in effect, most crucially that of habeas corpus.

Habeas corpus is a citizen’s right to be brought before a judge, in court, if they feel they have been unlawfully detained.

Without habeas corpus, you can be thrown in the tank, and held indefinitely until the powers-that-be deem it necessary to get around to your case or let you go, whichever comes first.

Aside from the suspension of habeas corpus, there are other civil rights as codified by the Bill of Rights that will be put out to pasture for the duration of the crisis while martial law is in effect:

  • 1st Amendment
    • Freedom of Speech
    • Freedom of Assembly
    • Freedom of the Press
  • 2nd Amendment
    • The Right to Keep and Bear Arms
  • 3rd Amendment
    • Freedom from Housing Soldiers
  • 4th Amendment
    • Protection from Unreasonable Searches
    • Protection from Unreasonable Seizure
  • 5th Amendment
    • Protection of Life
    • Protection of Liberty
    • Protection of Private Property

It is not hard to imagine how and why our civil rights would be squashed under martial law, especially if the government has given way to tyranny.

Freedom of speech is likely the spark that set the government on this path in the first place. Systematic search and seizure of private property will likely become the norm, in the wake of a major disaster or not.

Stockpiled and accumulated resources will be captured for redistribution according to the government’s will.

Under the circumstances, your personal firearms and ammunition will also likely be seized in the name of public safety. If history has shown us anything, it is that armed citizenry is bad for tyrannical governments.

Private property, including bare land, will potentially be seized and repurposed for the organization, housing of soldiers and support of military operations in a given area.

Any resistance or complaint against this will likely get you slapped with an infraction or tossed in jail outright.

On top of all of this, you’ll be subjected to inspections and searches at any time of day or night, whether under the cover of looking for contraband or rooting out criminals and bad actors.

You’ll get a knock on the door and be fully expected to open up and comply. Curfews will become a reality, and your movement in, out of, and around the area affected by declaration of martial law will be watched, documented and analyzed.

All in all, there’s a pretty good chance that things will look dystopian indeed if martial law is declared.

The One Civil Right You May Yet Keep Under Martial Law

This is all grim news to be sure: of course none of us hope that our government to say nothing of our soldiers and sailors would ever become so corrupt as to subjugate unjustly the citizens of this country.

But if history has taught us only one more thing, it is that governments accumulate power and wield it unjustly given enough time.

That being said, there is a hope that you would preserve at least one civil right under a declaration of martial law.

The Supreme Court of the United States has indeed ruled with the citizenry on this one particular issue, and that issue is codified by Amendment 6 of the Bill of Rights. Amendment 6 of the Bill of Rights States:

“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.”

Amendment 6 of the Bill of Rights

There exists an old and crucial precedent in defense of Amendment 6. It is a case known as Ex parte Milligan (71 US 1866).

The specifics are old, dry and boring, but vitally important to understanding this one and perhaps only check on government run amok in case martial law is declared.

The case revolves around the post-Civil War trial of four men accused of rebellion against the United States government. At this time, rebels, saboteurs and spies were being dealt with very harshly by military tribunal.

President Abraham Lincoln authorized the suspension of habeas corpus across the entirety of the United States prior to this and it was in effect for the trial of these four men when their trial began in October of 1864.

Long story short, all four men were found guilty and sentenced harshly. Only one of them did not receive the death penalty. In the aftermath of the trial one of the accused, Lambdon P. Milligan, had his legal team of lawyers petition the court for writ of habeas corpus.

As a reminder, habeas corpus is a citizen’s right to call for justification of their arrest and detainment. The judges who heard this motion did not come to agreement about the matter and kicked it up to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that military trials for citizens were unconstitutional so long as civilian courts were still operational. This verdict was handed down in April of 1866, and constitutional scholars have hung onto it like a dog on the back of a meat truck ever since.

The Takeaways

The case of Ex parte Milligan Is one of the strongest on record, being tried by the Supreme Court, that found even the president of the United States has limits on his legal powers, even during wartime, even for the suppression of what, at the time, was major dissent bordering on subversion.

But the key element that any prepper should keep in mind is noted in the section above: that ruling would only hold if civilian courts were still in operation.

If they aren’t, things have certainly gotten very bad, but you’ll also be completely out of luck. Your trial, assuming you get one if you’re detained under martial law, will be in the hands of the military.

It is exceedingly difficult to say what your treatment will be like. I believe that the men and women serving our militaries and our nation by extension are good, honorable and take their oaths very seriously.

On the other hand, none of us can say just how bad things would have really gotten if martial law has to be declared on this scale

Does that mean you’ll get a fair shake, or cursory kangaroo court before being summarily sentenced? None can say.

How Should a Prepper Deal with Martial Law?

I’m not going to get involved with the ethics of resisting a tyrannical government here in this article and instead will focus strictly on the practical concerns.

Your personal reaction to a declaration of martial law and its subsequent effects is going to largely revolve around the greater situation at large, i.e. what caused martial law to be implemented in the first place, and your own personal objectives, i.e. survive, escape, provide for family, etc.

There is a chance that your everyday life may not be too negatively impacted by martial law.

If enforcement is lax in your area, because you live in a place that is strategically unimportant or in a small or rural community, chances are you can avoid a lot of trouble if you go along, stay out of sight when you can and don’t cause any problems for the authorities.

It goes without saying that this may not be possible if you live in a densely populated region, or a place that is strategically important, such as a utility, industrial or commercial hotspot.

Have you considered what you would do if you’re being removed from your home, forced to evacuate or relocate? How about if your personal property is being seized and re-appropriated for the government’s own ends?

What about if there was a hard curfew in place, but you find yourself desperately needing to leave an area to get aid for your family or escape a dangerous situation?

All the above has happened under martial law enforced elsewhere; it can definitely happen here.

All you can do is start thinking through your possible responses to various scenarios now. Any of the above is a good enough reason to start getting away from cities and major population centers.

Anywhere you have a teeming mass of people the government is more likely to bring force to bear to keep order.

But even if you live out in the boondocks you may not be completely beyond the reach of the military and other government agents.

Posting online too much in the wrong circles about your anti-government sentiments, your huge gun collection and other socially sensitive topics are great ways to get yourself earmarked and moved to the top of the list for a friendly door-knock when martial law is declared.

It is too late to call it back once you’ve said it or posted it: now, as ever, keep your business your business if you want to stay off the government’s radar.

If you’re unlucky enough to be living in an area where martial law is declared you will need to act quickly if you want to get out from under it.

Right then and there would be the ideal time to bug out and head to your bug-out location or secondary rendezvous point.

Even if this is just a friend’s place outside of the immediately affected area, or a family member’s, go there and try to stay there for the duration. That will buy you a little more time to react.

But, if you are unable or unwilling to leave your only option is either to abide and get along with whoever is running the show as best you can, or go underground and hope you don’t get caught doing something naughty.

Martial law is unlikely to persist unless the very integrity of the nation is at stake.

As distasteful as it is, as much as you may hate it the situation can get a whole lot worse if you miss behave badly enough to get yourself detained by MP’s.

Don’t risk such an eventuality! If you can quietly tiptoe away to a place where the grass is greener, a place where you’ll have less breathing down your neck by military and other government agencies, do it.

If that is impossible, keep a low profile, keep your head down, smile and nod and persevere.


At least to the current date the declaration of martial law has been a rarity in the United States. But anytime martial law is declared you can count on your civil rights being sharply reduced for as long as the declaration lasts.

Unlike some other nations that declare martial law profligately, we do not have much experience with it as citizens in the United States and so have little experience to base our possible responses on.

Your best bet is to understand what a worst-case scenario under martial law will look like, and plan accordingly. With a little luck, and providence, it won’t be that bad.

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