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Classified Documents

18 U.S.C. § 1924 - Unauthorized Removal and Retention of Classified Documents or Material

In the United States, protecting classified information is paramount to safeguarding national security. Thus, when government officers, employees, or contractors mishandle classified materials entrusted to them, it risks significant harm to the United States and its interests.

Therefore, Title 18 U.S.C. 1924 makes it a federal crime to knowingly remove classified documents or materials from their designated locations without authorization or retain them in an unauthorized area.

Unauthorized Removal and Retention of Classified Documents or Material – 18 U.S.C. § 1924

Simply put, this federal statute deals with the unauthorized removal of classified documents. It's a crime for any officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States government to possess classified documents and remove them without proper authorization knowingly.

Further, if someone is found guilty of violating this statute, they must also have intended to retain the documents at an unauthorized location.

Notably, mishandling classified documents is a crime and a violation of national security. In other words, it's a federal crime to mishandle, misuse, or abuse classified information, as it can potentially harm the United States and its interests.

18 U.S.C. 1924 says, “(a) Whoever, being an officer, employee, contractor, or consultant of the United States, and, by virtue of his office, employment, position, or contract, becomes possessed of documents or materials containing classified information of the United States, knowingly removes such documents or materials without authority and with the intent to retain such documents or materials at an unauthorized location shall be….”

Penalties for violating this statute can include fines, imprisonment for up to five years in federal prison, or both. The severity of the penalties depends on the level of classification of the information involved, the intended use of the data, and the harm caused by the mishandling. Let's review this law further below.

Understanding 18 U.S.C. 1924

This law has come into sharp focus recently as the unlawful removal of classified materials is a central issue in one of the Justice Department's investigations into Former President Donald Trump's storing of classified materials at his home in Mar-al-Lago.

If the investigations lead to an indictment, this could be one of the crimes for which he is charged. But first, let's talk about what the law entails.

First, for an individual to be convicted of this crime, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt three elements:

  1. The defendant was a government officer or employee, contractor, or another person who lawfully had custody and control of classified documents;
  2. The defendant unlawfully and knowingly removed such documents from their designated locations; and
  3. The defendant intended to retain such documents at an unauthorized location.

What Is the Definition of Classified Information?

Classified information refers to data or material deemed sensitive to national security by the U.S. government. This includes all forms of classified documents or materials, including written documents, computer files, emails, and other digital formats.

Definition of Classified Information

This information is categorized into three levels of classification: Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret.

18 U.S.C. 1924(c) defines explicitly classified information as "information originated, owned, or possessed by the United States Government concerning the national defense or foreign relations of the United States that has been determined pursuant to law or Executive order to require protection against unauthorized disclosure in the interests of national security."

Unauthorized Removal 

This aspect of the law focuses on the illegal act of taking classified documents or material out of their designated storage location or facility without proper authorization.

What is the Retention of Classified Material?

Retention refers to keeping or holding onto classified documents or material beyond the authorized period or without proper clearance.

Other things to know about this law if you are accused of violating it:

  • The law does not require the government to prove that the removal or retention of such classified documents caused any harm. Instead, it is only necessary for it to show that you acted knowingly, willfully, and without authorization.
  • Prosecutors don't have to prove that you retained classified information to procure a conviction. They only have to prove that you intended to retain it, whether or not there is evidence that you did so.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 93 Public Officers and Employees have several federal statutes related to 18. U.S.C. 1924 unauthorized removal of classified documents, such as the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1901 – Collecting officer trading in public property;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1902 – Disclosure of crop information;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1903 – Speculation in stocks affecting crop insurance;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1905 – Disclosure of confidential information;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1906 – Disclosure of bank examination information;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1907 – Disclosure of information by farm credit examiner;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1909 – Examiner performing other services;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1910 – Nepotism in the appointment of a receiver;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1911 – Receiver mismanaging property;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1912 – Unauthorized fees vessel inspection;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1913 – Lobbying with appropriated money;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1915 – Compromise of customs liabilities;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1916 – Unauthorized lapsed appropriations;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1917 – Interference with civil service examinations;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1918 – Disloyalty against the Government;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1919 – False statement for unemployment compensation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1920 – False statement for employee compensation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1922 – Withheld report for employee compensation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 1923 – Fraudulent receipt of payments of missing persons.

What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 1924?

Violating 18 U.S. Code 1924 can result in severe penalties. If convicted, you could receive the following:

  • Up to 5 years in federal prison;
  • Fines up to $250,000; or
  • Both fines and imprisonment.

What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 1924?

While removing and retaining classified documents is a serious offense, a good federal criminal defense attorney can employ several possible defenses to combat the charges, as discussed below. 

Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of intent. Your attorney may argue that you did not knowingly remove or retain classified information and that it was done unintentionally or by mistake.

Defenses for Federal Crimes

For example, classified materials were misfiled and inadvertently taken in a stack of other materials you were authorized to keep when you left office.

Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of knowledge. For example, your attorney may show that you were unaware that you were removing classified documents or materials without authorization. In other words, you were either unaware that you possessed them or that they were in the wrong place.

Perhaps we can argue that there was a mistake of fact. Your attorney may claim that you believed the information was not classified and had no reason to believe otherwise.

Perhaps we can argue that there were whistleblower protections. In certain situations, individuals who disclose classified information to report government misconduct or wrongdoing may be protected under whistleblower laws.

Perhaps we can argue that you were authorized to remove and retain. If you show that you had the proper authorization to remove and retain the classified documents or materials, you may successfully defend against charges under 18 U.S.C. 1924.

Our law firm provides legal representation for federal criminal matters throughout the United States. You can contact us for a case review by phone or using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.

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