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Private Correspondence

18 U.S.C. § 953 - Private Correspondence with Foreign Governments

It is a violation of federal law for any United States citizen to negotiate with a foreign government on behalf of the U.S. government to resolve a dispute without being given the express authority to do so.

This crime is referred to as "private correspondence with a foreign government" and is defined under Title 18 U.S.C. 953. You could face up to three years in federal prison if you're charged with and convicted of this crime.

18 U.S. Code § 953 - private correspondence with foreign governments

Due to the importance of protecting the sovereignty of the U.S., there are strict rules for certain types of contact with foreign governments.

Further, there are rules associated with behaviors in foreign countries for people associated with the United States. Any violations of these foreign relations laws could lead to federal criminal charges.

18 U.S.C. 953 says, “Any citizen of the United States, wherever they are, who, without authority directly or indirectly carries on any correspondence with any foreign government or any officer or agent, with intent to influence the conduct of any foreign government or any officer, about any disputes or controversies, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this statute or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

If you are under a criminal investigation for violating this law, you face severe consequences and need to consult an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer. Let's review this federal law in more detail below.

The Context Behind 18 U.S.C. 953

The crime of private correspondence with a foreign government is tied to a very old law—the Logan Act, signed into law by President John Adams in 1799.

It was passed in response to the actions of one George Logan, a Pennsylvania state legislator and a Quaker with pacifist views, who took it upon himself to travel to France and negotiate directly with the French government to end hostilities between that country and the United States.

The Logan Act

Although his efforts were largely successful, Logan had no authority to negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government.

In fact, since the opposing political party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House at the time, Logan's actions were seen as undermining the government's position and tactics.

In the wake of this incident, Congress passed the Logan Act, making it a felony for any private citizen to negotiate with a foreign government without prior authorization. The law is now embodied in 18 U.S.C. 953.

Today, this law remains in effect to ensure that all negotiations between the United States and foreign governments are conducted by authorized individuals who can accurately represent the interests and position of the country.

This law also helps protect our national security by preventing the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information or commitments made on behalf of the United States government.

What the Law Says

As noted, 18 U.S.C. 953 criminalizes any U.S. citizen in any place on earth "who, without the authority, carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign officer with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign about any disputes or controversies with the United States."

In other words, no private citizen who hasn't been authorized as an agent of the U.S. can engage in any form of dispute resolution with a foreign government.

While the law is clear about private citizens corresponding with foreign governments on behalf of the U.S., it does not prohibit citizens from resolving disputes with foreign governments on their behalf.

In other words, if you have a personal grievance or dispute to settle with a foreign government, you have the right to do so without fear of legal repercussions.

What are the Related Federal Crimes?

Numerous laws are related to foreign relations. Many are in 18 U.S. Code Chapter 45 and are listed below:

  • 18 U.S.C. 951 - agents of foreign government makes it a federal crime for anyone other than a diplomatic or consular officer or attaché to act within the U.S. as an agent for a foreign government without adequately notifying the Attorney General. The penalty is up to 10 years in prison;
  • 18 U.S.C. 952 - diplomatic codes and correspondence describes that if any U.S. government employee gets access to or takes care of any official diplomatic code or anything that is written in that code and then, without authorization, publishes it or gives it to someone else, they will be fined and or sent to prison for up to 10 years;
  • 18 U.S.C. 954 - false statements influencing foreign government describes that whoever makes a false statement under oath that could harm the United States' relationship with a foreign government will be fined and imprisoned for up to 10 years;
  • 18 U.S.C. 955 - financial transactions with foreign governments;
  • 18 U.S.C. 956 - conspiracy to kill, kidnap, or injure persons, property;
  • 18 U.S.C. 957 - possession of the property in aid of foreign government;
  • 18 U.S.C. 958 - commission to serve against friendly nation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 959 - enlistment in foreign service;
  • 18 U.S.C. 960 - expedition against friendly nation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 961 - strengthening armed vessel of a foreign nation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 962 - arming vessel against a friendly nation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 963 - detention of an armed vessel;
  • 18 U.S.C. 964 - delivering armed vessel to a belligerent nation;
  • 18 U.S.C. 965 - verified statements as to a vessel's departure;
  • 18 U.S.C. 966 - departure of vessel forbidden for false statements;
  • 18 U.S.C. 967 - departure of vessel forbidden in aid of neutrality;
  • 18 U.S.C. 970 – protecting property occupied by foreign governments.

What Are the Penalties and Defenses?  

Only two people in U.S. history have been charged with a crime under this law, both occurring in the nineteenth century. Neither was convicted.

Nevertheless, private correspondence with a foreign government is considered a serious crime and a potential violation of national security. Those convicted can face up to three years in prison, hefty fines, and other penalties.

Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers

Suppose you have been accused of a federal crime related to foreign relations. In that case, you need legal representation from a federal criminal lawyer that is familiar with this area of law and knows how to help you to avoid a guilty verdict.

Perhaps we can negotiate it with the federal prosecutor and get the charges dropped or show them that we can create a reasonable doubt as to whether they can prove you are guilty.

As seasoned lawyers, we know what a prosecutor must prove and whether they have sufficient evidence. So, we need to look for a favorable plea agreement that will be a better action.

Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We serve clients on federal criminal issues across the United States. You can contact our law firm for a case evaluation by phone or use the contact form.

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We'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

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