A Las Vegas man who works for a contractor in Iraq faces a rare civilian court-martial and is confined at an overseas air base in violation of his constitutional rights, one of his attorneys said Monday.
If the military is allowed to pursue a court-martial against Justin M. Price, the 29-year-old would be the first U.S. civilian in 38 years to be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a defense attorney said.
Price is described in court documents as a civilian employee of Battlespace Flight Services, a Las Vegas-based company. He was taken into custody in November by Air Force authorities on allegations that he set fire to a Predator spy plane.
"At some point during the maintenance operations, a small fire began under the Predator," said a petition filed Friday on Price's behalf in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "The fire was quickly extinguished but not before an indeterminate amount of damage was caused to the exterior of the Predator."
Price's attorney did not elaborate on the details of what his client is accused of doing. Air Force prosecutors have said that charges likely to include arson and reckless endangerment "will be filed imminently" for a general court-martial, according to the petition. Price's defense team contends that the Department of Defense and the Air Force lack "constitutional and statutory power" to court-martial Price, who is "a full-fledged civilian."
The 37-page petition naming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as respondent seeks Price's release from confinement in Iraq through a writ of habeas corpus, which orders a person in custody to be brought before a court.
Price, a former Air Force staff sergeant who was honorably discharged in 2007, performed mechanical support services on unmanned Predator planes in Iraq beginning Sept. 14. He "worked 12-hour shifts for 63 days without any time off," according to the petition.
Although Price was confined on Nov. 21, no criminal charges have been filed against him.
He was supposed to return to the United States on Saturday, said Michael Navarre, one of Price's three attorneys.
"What we're asking for is for the court to free him from any restrictions so he can return," Navarre said.
Wife Calene Price said she only knows "bits and pieces" of what happened to her husband, who last saw her and his 9-year-old stepdaughter in September.
"I just want him to come home," she said.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal faxed a copy of the petition to Pentagon officials, who had no comment Monday.
Navarre explained that the Air Force is trying to use an article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was changed in recent years to allow courts-martial of civilians who are involved in "contingency operations" and not just wars declared by Congress.
Contact reporter Keith Rogers at email@example.com or 702-383-0308.