For example the words given here

Whoever falsely makes, forges, counterfeits, mutilates, or alters any passport or instrument purporting to be a passport, with intent that the same may be used;

or here

knowingly removes, obliterates, tampers with, or alters an identification number for a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part;

  • Intuitively, for the vehicle IDs, alter would mean to change the number whereas tamper could mean doing something else to it to make it not reveal the info it exists to reveal (not being an expert in committing such crimes, I can't go any better on specifics).
    – A.fm.
    Nov 17, 2018 at 19:55
  • 1
    This is really an English language and definition question and not one that deals with strictly legal terminology, so it belongs on english.stackexchange.com Nov 17, 2018 at 19:56
  • 1
    This is a question about the legal meaning of terminology often used in laws and regulations. As such, it belongs here. Nov 17, 2018 at 20:50

1 Answer 1


"Tamper" implies action taken with intend to improperly change the meaning. "Alter" simply means "change". "Mutilate" simply means "damage" but in this context implies "Make unreadable". "Obliterates" here means 'make unreadable" or "remove".

As a practical matter, there is not much if any difference between these words in this context, and no authority will spend any time at all considering whether some action is 'tampering" or "mutilation". The word "or" is used precisely to avoid such arguments. Any of these shades of meaning is equally forbidden.

English-language laws and regulations often specify multiple synonyms or near-synonyms , connecting them with "or" so that anything within the more general scope of the concept is included. Charles Rembar, in his book The Law of the Land, asserted that this dated to the period in England shortly after the Norman Conquest, and that lawyers tended to include equivalent terms from Latin, Norman French, and English. He mentions such combinations as "Give, devise, and bequeath" and "Promise, covenant, and agree" as typical and often-used examples of this tendency.

When this sort of multiple terminology is used, it is generally only useful to try to understand what is covered by the combined phrase, and of no value to try to determine which term covers which part of the concept.

In the cited cases, anyone who tries to change a passport to say something that the government didn't intend, or who tries to damage or destroy a passport, or anything similar, would be guilty of the forbidden act. And similarly, anyone who tries to make an MVID read differently, or to make it unreadable, would be guilty.

  • Thanks. That's a good answer. When the words are changed into passive or into adjectives ie tampered, altered, mutilated, some words appear more malicious than others. Only "tampered" seems to imply intent. For greater clarity: are tampered, mutilated or altered documents always "false?" Does "alter" always refer to unauthorized alterations? On who would the burden of proof be to show whether or not an alteration is authorized/unauthorized?
    – uberqe
    Nov 18, 2018 at 4:49
  • @uberqe: An alteration may be authorized or not, and may be false or not. Note that your first quote starts "Whoever falsely makes,..." and goes on to say "...with the intent that..." Those statements of intent are essential to the crime. and imply the malice or wrongdoing that a word such as "alter" does not. The entire law or regulation often matters, not just a single word. The word has meaning as part of the law, and must be read in context. An alteration that corrects an error may not make a false document. One meant to decisive will. Nov 18, 2018 at 6:12
  • Thanks for the clarification. Is dishonest intent required to render a document "false?" An example could be a passport that has been damaged in some way without malicious intent. If someone uses that passport aware of the damage, but in ignorance of it being thereby voided, would he be guilty of the crime?>>Whoever willfully and knowingly uses, or attempts to use, or furnishes to another for use any such false, forged, counterfeited, mutilated, or altered passport..or any passport validly issued which has become void by the occurrence of any condition therein prescribed invalidating the same<
    – uberqe
    Nov 18, 2018 at 6:34
  • @uberqe Your example doesn't sound to me as if it fits the "willfully and knowingly" part. But a different law about a different document might declare any altered document to be "false". Again the entire law may matter, and what counts as 'false" under one law may not under another. If I manually correct a typo is the document false? Perhaps. Depends on the specific law. Nov 18, 2018 at 6:56

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