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Destruction of Property

18 U.S.C. § 2232 - Destruction of Property to Avoid Seizure

Under federal law, it is a crime to destroy or remove property with the intent to prevent it from being seized by the government as defined under Title 18 U.S. Code § 2232.

This falls within the realm of obstruction of justice, and it's a potentially serious offense punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison if you're convicted.

Destruction of Property to Avoid Seizure - 18 U.S.C. § 2232

18 U.S.C. § 2232 says, “Whoever, before, during, or after any search or seizure of property by any authorized person, knowingly destroys, damages, wastes, disposes of, transfers, or otherwise takes any action, or attempts, for the purpose of preventing or impairing the Government's lawful authority to take such property into its custody or control or hold such property under its lawful custody and control, will be fined or imprisoned for up to five years, or both.”

Federal laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize property and money from anyone convicted of certain federal offenses, such as drug crimes and money laundering.  This process is called a “forfeiture,” but a federal prosecutor must first prove a defendant used the property to commit a crime, acquired it from illegal activity, or purchased it with money from unlawful conduct.

Federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) could confiscate property when they believe the property is proceeds or the instrument of a crime. Federal forfeiture and seizure laws are primarily designed to punish defendants by reducing their profits from illegal activity.

In other words, administrative forfeiture and seizure proceedings are a process where the federal government takes control of property or money because it is directly connected to illegal activity. 

They are also a significant source of revenue for federal law enforcement agencies. Our federal criminal defense lawyers will examine this topic further below.

Overview of Destruction or Removal of Property to Avoid Seizure

Title 18 USC 2232 makes it a federal offense to knowingly destroy or remove (or attempt to destroy or remove) any item of property that the U.S. government claims lawful authority to seize.

Specifically, it outlaws any effort to "destroy, damage, waste, dispose of, transfer, or otherwise take any action, for the purpose of preventing or impairing the Government's lawful authority to take such property into its custody or control." To prove you committed this crime, federal prosecutors must demonstrate three things:

  • A person was authorized by the government to search for and seize the property (e.g., via a warrant);
  • You willfully destroyed or removed the property designated for seizure (or attempted to do so); and
  • You did so for the specific purpose of keeping it from being seized.

Under this law, the government's attempt to seize property may be for one of two reasons:

  • For purposes of investigation (i.e., the property is evidence); or
  • For forfeiture (e.g., to satisfy a debt or deter a crime).

Willfully destroying, damaging, removing, or transferring property to avoid government seizure is a felony federal offense.

If you're convicted of this crime, you could face hefty fines and a prison sentence of up to 5 years. This is in addition to any other federal criminal charges you might have faced in the context of destroying the property. Theft or alteration of record or process is defined under 18 U.S.C. § 1506.

What Are Some Examples of This Law?

EXAMPLE 1: Jake receives notice that the IRS has placed a lien against certain assets and may seize them to satisfy back taxes. To keep the IRS from taking his property, he transfers the contents of his bank account to his sister's account and turns over the title of his boat to his brother.

Penalties for 18 U.S.C. § 2232

Jake has committed a federal crime because he willfully transferred ownership of the property to keep the IRS from taking it, hoping to reclaim it later.

EXAMPLE 2: An FBI agent obtains a search warrant to enter John's house and seize his computer, which the agent believes contains child pornography. While the agent is on his way to John's house, he takes his computer and destroys it by smashing it with a hammer. By the time the agent arrives, all that remains of the computer is a pile of rubble. John has committed a federal crime by willfully destroying his computer to keep the FBI from seizing it and investigating its contents.

EXAMPLE 3: DEA agents obtain a warrant to search Joe's house for drugs. Unaware that the agents are on their way, Joe decides to try and get clean and flushes his drugs down the toilet. In this case, while Joe may face other drug-related charges depending on prior evidence, he has not committed a federal crime because his intentions were not to willfully prevent the drug's seizure.

What Are the Related Federal Statutes?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 109 defines specific types of criminal conduct that are related to searches and seizures, such as:

  • 18 U.S.C. 2231 - Assault or resistance: This statute covers anyone opposing, preventing, impeding, or intimidating an official performing their duties.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2233 - Rescue of seized property: This statute covers forcibly rescuing seized property or attempts to dispossess it.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2234 - Authority exceeded in executing a warrant: This statute covers willfully exceeding authority under a search warrant.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2235 - Search warrant procured maliciously: This statute covers maliciously procuring a search warrant without probable cause.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2236 - Searches without warrant: This law covers maliciously searching a private dwelling or property without a warrant.
  • 18 U.S.C. 2237 - Criminal sanctions for failure to heave to, obstruction of boarding, or providing false information: This statute makes it a crime for masters, operators, or anyone in charge of a vessel in the United States jurisdiction to knowingly fail to obey a lawful order by a federal law enforcement officer to heave to that vessel.

Ignoring a federal subpoena and contempt are defined under 18 U.S.C. 401 and 402.

What Are the Legal Defenses for This Federal Law? 

If you're facing charges of destroying or removing property to keep it from being seized by the government, an experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you explore possible defenses. Some common strategies are discussed below.

Perhaps we can reasonably argue that you did not willfully destroy the property. In other words, you did not know about the impending seizure, or you did not destroy the property for the purpose of keeping it out of the government's hands.

Defenses for Federal Destruction of Property to Avoid Seizure

Perhaps the destruction of the property in question was accidental. If you can show that the damage or destruction of the property was not intentional, you may be able to avoid a conviction.

Perhaps the government lacked the authority to search for or seize the property. If the government does not have a valid warrant or other legal claim for seizing the property, then any actions you took to prevent the seizure may be considered reasonable.

Perhaps we can argue that the property was not involved in the crime, a common legal defense. In other words, the property was not used for an illegal purpose.

Federal forfeiture laws are often complex, and not every lawyer is qualified to handle these cases. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We provide legal representation for federal matters across the United States. Contact us for a case evaluation via phone or fill out the contact form.

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