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Destruction of Government Property

Destruction of Government Property - 18 U.S. Code § 1361

It is a federal crime to destroy or damage any property owned by or under the federal government's control. This law is embodied in Title 18 U.S.C. 1361. Depending on the dollar value of the damaged property, if you're convicted of this federal crime, you could face up to 10 years in prison.

This statute protects any property of the United States from “willful depredation or attempted depredation.” It's a “specific intent” crime, meaning to convict an alleged perpetrator, the government must prove they intentionally defaced or destroyed the property while knowing this destruction is a crime.

Destruction of Government Property - 18 U.S. Code § 1361

A related federal statute is 18 U.S.C. § 1369, known as the Veterans' Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003. This statute applies to the desecration of statutes and monuments of military veterans like General and President Ulysses Grant and the World War II Memorial.

18 U.S.C. § 1361 destruction of property law falls under the category of malicious mischief, which can lead to serious federal charges. Most people know that federal cases are more severe than state-level cases and carry harsher penalties if convicted.

We know how prosecutors will attempt to build a malicious mischief case against you, and we have the negotiating skills to obtain the best possible outcome.

Perhaps it would be possible to negotiate lesser charges or even a case dismissal. Our federal criminal defense attorneys will examine this law in more detail below.

18 U.S.C. § 1361 Explained

The crime of destruction of government property reads rather broadly and may encompass a variety of acts. Let's examine what the law says and what it covers.

18 U.S.C. § 1361 is a federal law prohibiting the destruction of federal property. The law itself makes it a felony for anyone who:

  • "willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States, or of any department or agency thereof, or any property which has been or is being manufactured or constructed for the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or attempts to commit any of the preceding offenses..."

The law broadly applies to the damage or destruction of any property owned or leased by the federal government, including buildings, vehicles, equipment, and furnishings. 

It also applies to any items manufactured under contract for the United States and any department or agency contracted to make those items.

Federal Destruction of Government Property Charges

Furthermore, the law criminalizes any "attempt to commit any of the foregoing offenses," meaning attempting to cause damage to government property is just as much a federal crime as actually damaging it.

This law came to the forefront fairly recently when on January 6, 2021, pro-Trump rioters breached the U.S. Capitol building to stop the certification of Joe Biden's election victory.

In the process, they caused significant damage to the building and its contents. As a result, many rioters have been charged with violating 18 U.S.C. 1361, among a litany of other federal offenses.

The word "depredation" is not defined in the statute, but it is generally understood to mean an act of plundering or looting. Over time, the courts have interpreted "depredation" as "plundering, robbing, pillaging, or laying waste," which effectively encompasses stealing, vandalizing, or destroying property.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Tom and Dave break into a factory producing copper wiring, vandalize some of the machinery, and steal some copper wire to sell on the black market. The factory was under contract with the federal government, and the wire they stole was part of the fulfillment of that contract. Tom and Dave may be charged with a federal crime because the property they pillaged legally belonged to the federal government.

EXAMPLE 2: Jane is distraught that her candidate did not win the election. She goes on a rampage, driving her car through the front doors of her local post office. Jane can be charged with the destruction of government property because the post office is a federal building.

EXAMPLE 3: John is protesting the construction of a new pipeline. He climbs onto a bulldozer used to clear the land for the pipeline and starts throwing rocks at the operator's cab, smashing the windshield. John can be charged with the destruction of government property because he damaged equipment used in the pipeline construction.

EXAMPLE 4: Aaron sneaks onto the grounds of a federal building at night with a can of spray paint, intending to vandalize the outside wall with a political message. He is stopped by security before he can spray the wall. Among other crimes, Aaron may still be charged under U.S.C. 1361 because he attempted to damage government property—even though he failed.

What Are the Related Federal Offenses?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 65 lists the federal laws dealing with the destruction of government property, which includes the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 1361 - this statute imposes penalties for willfully injuring or committing depredation against property of the United States;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1362 - this statute addresses willfully damaging communication lines, stations, or systems;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1363 – this statute addresses willfully and maliciously destroying structures, conveyances, or property that is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1364 - this statute makes it a crime to injure or destroy by fire or explosives any articles or places in foreign commerce with the intent to prevent or obstruct products from being exported to foreign countries;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1365 – this statute addresses tampering with consumer products that affect interstate or foreign commerce or tampering with product labels, with reckless disregard for the risk of injury to other people;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1366 – this statute addresses willfully damaging or attempting to damage energy facilities causing over $100,000 in damage;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1367 – this statute addresses interfering with the operation of a satellite and could lead to ten years in federal prison;
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1368 – this statute addresses willfully and maliciously causing harm to police animals or attempting to cause harm;
  • 18 U.S. C. § 1369 - this statute makes it a crime to deface, destroy, or desecrate a veteran memorial.

What Are the Penalties for This Offense?

The penalties for damaging or destroying government property depend on the value of the damaged property. If the damage is valued at less than $1000, the maximum penalty is fine, up to one year in prison, or both.

However, if the damage exceeds $1000, the maximum sentence increases to 10 years in prison.

How Can You Defend Against These Charges?

Suppose you have been charged with damaging or destroying government property. In that case, a good federal criminal defense lawyer will be able to review the facts of your case and determine what defenses might be available to you. Some possible defenses are discussed below.

Defenses for Destruction of Government Property

Perhaps we can argue that you did not damage or destroy property. For example, you may have been part of a group protest, but you did not take part in vandalizing property.

Perhaps we can argue that the damage was not intentional. U.S.C. 1361 requires a willful act of destruction. You're not guilty of a federal crime if the damage was an accident. Perhaps we can argue that the property you damaged or destroyed was not owned or controlled by the government.

Contact our law firm to examine the details and legal options if you were accused of destroying government property. Perhaps we can negotiate with the federal prosecutor for a favorable resolution or plea agreement.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California. We serve people throughout the United States on federal criminal issues. You can reach us for an initial case review by phone or by filling out the contact form.

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