A random idea I had based on shows like squid game, or others that feature death games.

In a real world setting in the USA, you have knowledge and details of an ongoing criminal organization without ever participating or working with them.

You intend to come forward to the police with that knowledge with the intent of taking down or hindering said criminal organization before filing for witness protection.

Let’s say in front of you is a lockbox containing ten million dollars in illegally gained dollars by the organization.

You decide to take it on your way out.

Could you publicly and legally declare the money you stole without any legal repercussions?

2 Answers 2


Stealing money is theft, see RCW Chapter 9a.56 in Washington, and analogous laws in other jurisdictions. What you describe is theft, as defined under RCW 9A.56.020, and that is a crime. Defenses are available only in case of an open taking made under a good faith claim to title to the property ("it's my money"), or an irrelevant defense related to pallet theft from a pallet recycler. There is no exception arising for goods "in the possession of a criminal organization".

There is also no applicable attainder process for declaring an organization to be a "criminal organization" to which such an exception could be referred, in Washington or any other state that I am familiar with. At the federal level, 18 USC Ch. 96 does not have a provision for declaring some organization to be a "criminal organization", but it does prohibit using proceeds from "a pattern of racketeering activity" that a person or organization participated in, to support a business engaged in interstate or foreign commerce. There is an extensive but specific list of trigger crimes, which are all federal crimes. Supposing that a state wanted to make it legal to steal from criminals, there would have to be a suitable definition of "criminal". Compare the various sex offender laws, where under dell-defined circumstances, a person is legally declared to be a sex offender required to register.

If the property is in fact the proceeds of a criminal activity (not merely "in the possession of a criminal") or is used to support criminal activities, it might be seized under civil forfeiture statutes. However, those statutes only allow the government to seize the property – vigilante civil forfeiture is still theft, a crime for which you can be prosecuted. The state might seize such assets and, when challenged in court, may have to prove that the assets a seizable (this is highly jurisdiction-dependent). The prospects that a prosecutor will turn a blind eye to a theft on the grounds that the victims are criminals is pretty small. More likely, everything gets seized and everybody gets prosecuted.

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    Note that even if the cash wasn't the property of the criminal organization (because it was identifiable cash stolen from someone who owned it) it still wouldn't be your money.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 20, 2022 at 20:47
  • I am now more educated, thank you for your time. Jan 21, 2022 at 0:48
  • This is a great answer. You made a great point in your second paragraph about attainder. Just imagine the ramifications of allowing citizen-on-citizen civil asset forfeiture. Your somewhat unstable neighbor believes (in good faith, but on some rather flimsy evidence) that you are running an unregistered exotic pet shop out of your home, so he walks off with your TV. You, not knowing he was exercising his right to forfeiture (you weren't actually running a pet shop) but concluding (reasonably) that he is running a TV theft operation, take his motorcycle and a six-pack of beer. Mar 3 at 0:31

Not with Assurance

That the money was already stolen, or otherwise illegally gained does not entitle the whistleblower (who I will call W) to take it. W is still guilty of theft. The authorities might choose not to prosecute W, because of W's assistance in hindering the criminal organization, assuming that assistance proved as valuable as W expects that it will. But they might choose to prosecute W, and if W openly declares this money, it might provide the evidence needed. Depending on the exact details of the situation, of course.

Also if W wants to take this money into witness protection, it might make it easier for the criminal organization to trace W and take revenge, and eliminate W as a witness. That is a significant added risk, and the witness protection program might refuse to accept W under those conditions.

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    Thank you for giving insight into a fun thought experiment. Jan 20, 2022 at 8:36
  • @XenInspiration: It's not just a thought experiment. E.g., people make the news every few years for using romance scams on terrorists (in both cases the scammer asks for travel money to fly to the target, which the scammer then pockets). The typical reaction of the authorities is, "We aren't going to prosecute, but scamming terrorists is very dangerous; please don't do it."
    – Brian
    Feb 14, 2022 at 20:19

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