18 U.S.C. § 1521 - Retaliating Against a Federal Judge or Law Enforcement Officer
Federal law affords specific legal protections for federal judges and federal law enforcement officers against retaliatory acts, whether by defendants or others who might disagree with their rulings and actions.
To this end, Title 18 U.S.C. 1521 makes it a federal crime to retaliate against one of these officials by filing a false claim, specifically, a "false lien or encumbrance" against them.
The United States criminal justice system is designed to ensure that all defendants deserve a fair trial and must be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Some of these laws are related to the obstruction of justice.
Anyone who attempts to interfere with the criminal justice system's due process or effective administration could be charged with a federal offense and face harsh penalties.
18 U.S.C. 1521 says, “Whoever files, attempts to file, or conspires to file, in any public record or in any private record which is generally available to the public, any false lien or encumbrance against the real or personal property of an individual described in section 1114, on account of the performance of official duties by that individual, knowing or having reason to know that such lien or encumbrance is false or contains any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned….”
What Does the Law Say?
Simply put, 18 U.S.C. 1521 details the crime of retaliating against a federal judge or law enforcement officer by filing a "false lien or encumbrance,” a practice also commonly referred to as "paper terrorism," which is sometimes committed by organized criminal operations.
This statute protects these public officials from retaliatory malicious and unfounded accusations that could harm their reputation, property, or financial standing.
If you're convicted of doing so, you could face up to 10 years in federal prison. Let's review this federal law in greater detail below.
What is a False Lien or Encumbrance?
A false lien or encumbrance is a legally enforceable claim against someone's property that is not actually owed. A lien or encumbrance is a claim or liability attached to a property, typically as a security for a debt or an obligation.
It can affect the owner's ability to sell, lease, or use the property freely. When a lien or encumbrance is "false," it means that someone has wrongfully filed a claim to the property, attempting to make it seem as if there's a debt or obligation attached to the property when there isn't one.
18 U.S.C. 1521 defines a false lien or encumbrance as one that "is false or contains any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation." An example would be filing a false lien on a judge's home to punish them for issuing an unfavorable ruling.
In most cases, false liens don't result in the confiscation of property or any actual collection of a false debt. They are often thrown out when challenged in court. A false lien's primary purpose, especially for retaliatory reasons, is usually to harass, intimidate, or frighten the victim.
What Are the Elements of the Offense?
To procure a conviction under 18 U.S.C. 1521, federal prosecutors must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You knowingly filed or caused to be filed a false claim or lien—or conspired to do so. The prosecution must establish that the defendant willfully filed or caused to be filed a document that falsely claimed an interest in the property or assets of a federal judge or law enforcement officer.
- The targeted individual was a federal judge or federal law enforcement officer. The statute applies specifically to federal judges and law enforcement officers, including agents of the FBI, DEA, and other federal agencies.
- The false claim or lien was filed in retaliation. The prosecution must prove that your actions were motivated by the public official's performance of their duties, such as a judge's decision in a case or a law enforcement officer's arrest or investigation.
What Are the Related Federal Crimes?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 73 Obstruction of Justice has several federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S. Code 1521 retaliating against a federal judge or federal law enforcement officer by false claim or slander of title, including the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 1501 – Assault on process server;
- 18 U.S.C. 1502 – Resistance to extradition agent;
- 18 U.S.C. 1503 – Influencing or injuring officer or juror generally;
- 18 U.S.C. 1504 – Influencing juror by writing;
- 18 U.S.C. 1505 – Obstruction of proceedings before departments;
- 18 U.S.C. 1506 – Theft or alteration of record or process; false bail;
- 18 U.S.C. 1507 – Picketing or parading;
- 18 U.S.C. 1508 – Recording proceedings of grand juries;
- 18 U.S.C. 1509 – Obstruction of court orders;
- 18 U.S.C. 1510 – Obstruction of criminal investigations;
- 18 U.S.C. 1511 – Obstruction of state or local law enforcement;
- 18 U.S.C. 1512 – Tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant;
- 18 U.S.C. 1513 – Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant;
- 18 U.S.C. 1514 – Civil action to restrain harassment of a victim or witness;
- 18 U.S.C. 1514A – Civil action to protect against retaliation in fraud cases;
- 18 U.S.C. 1515 – Definitions for certain provisions; general provision;
- 18 U.S.C. 1516 – Obstruction of federal audit;
- 18 U.S.C. 1517 – Obstructing examination of a financial institution;
- 18 U.S.C. 1518 – Obstruction of health care criminal investigations;
- 18 U.S.C. 1519 – Destruction of records in federal bankruptcy;
- 18 U.S.C. 1520 – Destruction of corporate audit records.
Penalties for Violating U.S.C. 1521
Violating Title 18 U.S. Code 1521 is a federal felony offense. If you are convicted, you could face severe penalties, including:
- Imprisonment for up to 10 years; and
- Fines of up to $250,000.
These penalties reflect the seriousness of the offense and the potential or actual harm caused to the targeted public officials and the justice system.
What Are the Common Defenses?
If you're facing charges under U.S.C. 1521, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can implement several defense strategies to combat the charges. Common defenses are discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that there was a lack of retaliatory intent. 18 U.S.C. 1521 specifically criminalizes filing a false lien "on account of the performance of the official duties" of the victim—meaning you must have had retaliatory intent in filing the false claim.
Your attorney may argue that your actions were not motivated by retaliation against the targeted public official—for example, perhaps your actions were motivated by another reason, such as a legitimate dispute or misunderstanding.
Perhaps we can argue there was a mistake of fact. For example, your attorney may say that you genuinely believed the information in the document was true or that you were unaware of the document's contents. In other words, you didn't knowingly file a false claim.
Perhaps we can argue First Amendment Rights. In rare cases, defendants may argue that their actions were protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
However, courts have historically rejected this defense because the First Amendment does not protect retaliation against public officials. Your attorney must be able to provide clear, unconsidered evidence for this defense to be effective. You can contact our law firm for a case review by phone or using the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.