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Flavor text:

You're suddenly startled by the feds knocking on your door. Someone must have squealed about the methamphetamine operation you've picked up as a hobby to try and save some money for your family. You quickly Google the punishment for evidence tampering and find some law firm's webpage.

Under U.S. Code 18 Section 1519, federal evidence tampering can be charged as a felony and is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

That doesn't sound so bad compared to the life sentence you would surely face as the convicted kingpin of a meth empire. Before opening the door and welcoming in the DEA, you quickly destroy documents that are crucial for a successful conviction. How does the US federal legal system deal with such a scenario?


Does the US legal system have specific mechanisms to ensure that evidence tampering does not allow one to reduce total punishment? As examples, can proof of evidence tampering be used as evidence of the original crime? Can a sentence for evidence tampering somehow scale to be at least as great as any crime it successfully covers up?

Alternatively, are there scenarios in the US legal system where destroying evidence could be the rational thing to do (assuming you will succeed in covering up the original crime but be convicted of evidence tampering)?

Assume US federal law.

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Does the US legal system have specific mechanisms to ensure that evidence tampering does not allow one to reduce total punishment? As examples, can proof of evidence tampering be used as evidence of the original crime?

I believe so. According to People v Davis, 43 N.Y.2d 17 (1977):

a party's attempt to procure false testimony or to corrupt a witness, though collateral to the issues, is competent as an admission by acts and conduct that the party's case is weak and its evidence dishonest

and

the fact that evidence was fabricated is admissible even though the evidence itself was not used

I would be surprised if an attempt to destroy evidence was not viewed the same way as an attempt to fabricate evidence.

Can a sentence for evidence tampering somehow scale to be at least as great as any crime it successfully covers up?

No. There are mechanisms to adjust the sentence (for example, the sentencing guidelines for obstruction of justice offenses says "If the offense resulted in substantial interference with the administration of justice, increase by 3 levels"), but they cannot go beyond what is authorized by the law, so it can't be more than 20 years.

Alternatively, are there scenarios in the US legal system where destroying evidence could be the rational thing to do (assuming you will succeed in covering up the original crime but be convicted of evidence tampering)?

If you make those assumptions, then yes, it might make sense.

But nobody can be sure those assumptions on what they'll be convicted of are valid. The police already have probable cause if they have a warrant. You could just be adding time on to what you're going to be sentenced to anyway. 20 years isn't a short sentence even if your plan "works" - maybe you could have got a plea deal shorter than that.

And finally, if the police have reason to believe that you are going to destroy evidence, they'll probably get a no-knock warrant and not give you the chance. They often do, in drug cases.

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The US legal system deals with this by punishing you for the crimes of which you are convicted. That is, those where the evidence (whatever it is) convinces a jury that you are guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

If there is insufficient evidence, for whatever reason then you would not be convicted. The prosecution can, subject to admissibility, put forward whatever evidence they like in order to convince the jury. This can include a pile of ash that they allege contained convincing and unambiguous evidence of guilt. Of course, if that's all they've got the prosecution would probably be censured by the judge for wasting everybody's time and money, more likely, a prosecutor wouldn't lay charges in the first place.

As to punishment for an evidence tampering conviction: you have been convicted of evidence tampering, not drug production so you will be punished for evidence tampering, not drug production. The legislature sets different punishments for these for a reason, possibly a reason known only to them but a reason nevertheless. The judge has discretion to apply anything between the minimum and maximum sentence prescribed. A conviction for evidence tampering in a drug case rather than, say, a jaywalking case, is likely to get a more severe sentence all else being equal.

  • I'm a little confused how you could be convicted of evidence tampering at all. Until the police have seized it, isn't it your property and not evidence? – eyeballfrog Mar 21 '17 at 19:42
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    @eyeballfrog just because it's your property doesn't mean it can't be evidence too – Dale M Mar 21 '17 at 20:09
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    Agreed. Evidence is often your property. It is evidence because tends to add information about guilty or innocence. It has that status whether or not police seize it. Indeed, in cases of evidence tampering, the evidence itself will often not longer even exist once you tamper with it. Evidence need not even show you are guilty. You could be convicted of evidence tampering for destroying evidence that shows someone else is guilty and that you are innocent. – ohwilleke Mar 22 '17 at 1:04
  • The idea that a legal system should never, in effect, reward evidence tampering seems basic enough that there may be published material on the issue so I'm holding off on accepting for now in case citations turn up. – Praxeolitic Mar 22 '17 at 2:15
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    @Praxeolitic the legal system can create perverse incentives. Consider if the fine for pollution is $5,000 but the cost of lawful disposal is $20,000 – Dale M Mar 22 '17 at 4:25

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