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I've heard it claimed everyone is guilty of a crime, whether or not they realize it. As such my computer likely possesses all kind of evidence against me, even if it's mostly trivial things. Maybe I have messages with a friend where I admitted to speeding to get somewhere when I was late, or I watched something copyrighted online when I shouldn't have (or possibly didn't even realize I was circumventing copyright when I watched it), or my hypothetical child just hit puberty and waited until I went to bed to visit some of those sites a child in the throes of puberty is likely very interested in and is not legally allowed to visit.

The point is that likely there is some kind of evidence of crime on my, or anyone's, hard drive at some point in time, I may not even realize that the data was evidence or even that my actions were technically a crime. That means there is a non-trivial chance any time I choose to clean up my computer, delete unused data, clear my browser history, or otherwise remove what I consider to be unimportant data I may actually be destroying evidence. So when can I delete stuff from my computer without risking a crime? To give a few examples of increasingly questionable theoretical actions:

Assuming there was some sort of potential evidence I was unaware of is there ever a point I could have deleted it without it being criminal?

Do I have to be aware the data may be evidence first? If my hypothetical child clears the browser history to keep me from discovering the sort of sites the visited while I was asleep are they guilty since they knew they were destroying evidence, even though their intent was not to prevent criminal prosecution but instead to avoid revocation of internet access by me?

What if I know my friend visited a website that is illegal, say one for viewing copyrighted shows illegally, and I've chosen to not report him. Am I now never allowed to delete my browser history or clear its cache ever again since that would destroy something I know is evidence of my friend's crime? What if my computer has major software issues and the only viable solution is delete everything and reinstall from scratch; am I stuck with a worthless broken computer because reinstalling things from scratch would delete evidence of a crime?

I'm interested in the USA perspective. My home state is MD, but I would be willing to accept answers referencing any states' laws if answerer is more familiar with their own. I'm just trying to figure out where the USA generally draws the line between intentional destruction of evidence and every day digital activities.

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  • 1
    The law is about rights not what is written. It is copyright. Mar 15, 2023 at 20:44
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    You could say the same thing about household garbage, so maybe you'd better start saving it? Mar 15, 2023 at 21:09
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    1 note: while it is illegal for anyone to knowingly show or share pornographic material to a minor, it is not illegal for that same minor to go online and search for that material himself. The age gating on porn websites is NOT aimed at protecting minors, it's just something porn sites are required to do by law.
    – Nzall
    Feb 21 at 16:32

1 Answer 1

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The relevant Maryland statute is MD. Criminal Law Code Ann. § 9-307 (2021), subsection (a):

A person may not destroy, alter, conceal, or remove physical evidence that the person believes may be used in a pending or future official proceeding with the intent to impair the verity or availability of the physical evidence in the official proceeding.

Note "that the person believes" and "with the intent to." If you have no reason to think it might be necessary in an official proceeding, you aren't violating this section. If you delete the data unintentionally or for some other reason, then you also probably are not violating the section. (I say "probably" because I'm sure there's some sort of provision for negligence or willful disregard for the evidential value of something you should know has evidential value.)

As a practical matter, no copyright lawsuit or criminal trial (and criminal trials over copyright infringement are very rare) is going to depend on the browser history of the defendant's friend.

What if my computer has major software issues and the only viable solution is delete everything and reinstall from scratch; am I stuck with a worthless broken computer because reinstalling things from scratch would delete evidence of a crime?

If you know of evidence on the hard drive that would be destroyed, you can copy it somewhere else before deleting and reinstalling.

Federal law is similar: it requires knowledge and intent. 18 USC 1519:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

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  • Thank you for your answer, but this only mentions the state's laws, but I assume federal laws also apply and would need considered?
    – dsollen
    Mar 15, 2023 at 21:36
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    @dsollen I've added the corresponding federal statute.
    – phoog
    Mar 15, 2023 at 22:24

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