18 U.S.C. § 1506 - Theft or Alteration of Record or Process
In the United States, official court records are almost treated as sacred. The reason is that, for the purposes of justice, the material contained in court documents is presumed to be true.
For that reason, it's a federal crime to steal, alter, or falsify official records or processes under Title 18 U.S. Code 1506. Being convicted of this crime could land you in federal prison for up to five years.
18 U.S.C. § 1506 says, “Whoever feloniously steals, takes away, alters, falsifies, or avoids any record, writ, process, or other proceedings, in any United States court, whereby any judgment is reversed, made void or does not take effect; or whoever acknowledges, or procures, in any such court, any recognizance, bail, or judgment, in the name of someone, not privy or consenting to the same, shall be fined or imprisoned up to five years, or both.”
The United States criminal justice system is designed to give all criminal defendants a fair trial and that everyone has to be considered innocent until they have been proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. Thus, laws must be established and enforced to ensues our process is fair and equal.
There are many federal statutes related to obstruction of justice, which essentially means any interference with due process or the normal criminal justice system process. You could face criminal charges under federal laws and harsh penalties if you obstruct justice.
However, under obstruction of justice laws, a federal prosecutor has to be able to prove all the “elements of the crime” to obtain a guilty conviction. These usually are particular factors, depending on the type of federal obstruction crime.
If you are under investigation, or already indicted for a federal offense, then you will need an experienced legal team to help you. Our federal criminal defense attorneys will look at this law in more detail below.
Overview of 18 U.S.C. § 1506
The crime of theft/alteration of record or process; false bail is a form of obstruction of justice. However, instead of overt actions such as harassing or intimidating witnesses, destroying evidence, etc., 18 U.S.C. 1506 addresses the crime of tampering with court documents in such a way that the court's judgment is unfairly skewed or reversed.
There are three primary ways in which an individual can violate 18 U.S.C. 1506:
- Theft of records: This includes taking official court documents from the courthouse without authorization and stealing documents that have been filed with the court (e.g., stealing a copy of someone's will from the probate court).
- Alteration of records: This can involve doctoring or changing the content of court documents and forging signatures on official documents.
- Falsifying bail: Bail is the money or collateral that a defendant must post in order to be released from jail while awaiting trial. 18 U.S.C. 1506 prohibits anyone from falsely representing themselves as a surety (i.e., someone who guarantees that the defendant will show up for trial) to post bail on behalf of the defendant.
Stealing, altering, or falsifying court records or processes is a felony offense. The penalty for violating this law is pretty straightforward: if convicted on any count, you could face up to 5 years in prison, plus hefty fines.
What Are Some Examples of This Federal Offense?
EXAMPLE 1: Andrew is one of several beneficiaries named in his grandmother's will, who recently passed away. A preliminary review of choice shows that Andrew will receive far less of his grandmother's inheritance than expected.
Andrew pays off a court clerk to sneak into the probate court offices and replace the original will with a forged copy that awards Andrew far more of the inheritance. Both Andrew and the court clerk may be charged with theft and alteration of record under U.S.C. 1506.
EXAMPLE 2: Martha is on trial for embezzlement. The night before her trial is scheduled to begin, she breaks into the office of the prosecutor handling her case and steals the file containing all of the evidence against her. The following day, Martha presents the court with a forged copy of the file that omits several critical pieces of evidence. In addition to embezzlement, Martha can be charged with theft and alteration of records under 18 U.S.C. 1506.
EXAMPLE 3: John is in jail awaiting trial on drug charges. He knows that his family does not have the money to post bail, so he has his friend, Jesse, pose as his bail bondsman. Jesse creates a phony bail bond to present to the court to assert that John will appear for trial. Jesse and John may be charged under 18 U.S.C. 1506 for presenting false bail.
What Are the Related Federal Crimes?
The crime of theft/alteration of records or processes often occurs in tandem with other types of obstruction covered under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 73. These may include, but are not limited to:
- Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy (18 U.S.C. 1519): Specifically refers to destroying or tampering with any court documents or other records related to bankruptcy proceedings;
- Witness tampering (18 U.S.C. 1512): Refers to such actions as inducing, enticing, intimidating a witness to prevent them from testifying, stopping someone from reporting a crime, or even killing a potential witness to keep them from testifying;
- Influencing or injuring a juror or court officer generally (18 U.S.C. 1503): This statute covers a wide range of activities to disrupt or interfere with the judicial process. This includes everything from bribing a juror to trying to intimidate a judge;
- Assault on a federal process server (18 U.S.C. 1501): Refers to anyone who assaults, resists, or impedes a process server attempting to serve papers related to a federal case;
- Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees (18 U.S.C. 1505);
- Obstruction of criminal investigations (18 U.S.C. 1510);
- Obstruction of a federal audit (18 U.S.C. 1516);
- Obstructing examination of financial institutions (18 U.S.C. 1517);
- Obstruction of criminal investigations of health care offenses (18 U.S.C. 1518);
- Retaliating against a federal judge or law enforcement officer (18 U.S.C. 1521);
- Ignoring a federal subpoena and contempt are defined under 18 U.S.C. 401 and 402.
Get Help from a Federal Criminal Defense Professional
If you're facing charges of stealing, altering, or falsifying official records or processes under Title 18 U.S. Code 1506, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can help you explore possible defenses. Some common strategies are discussed below.
Perhaps we can reasonably argue it was not a willful act. In other words, you did not know they were considered official court records, and you did take them to keep them out of the government's hands.
Maybe the government lacked the authority to search for or seize the property. If they didn't have a valid warrant or another legal claim, then any actions you took to prevent the seizure might be considered legal and reasonable.
Our federal criminal attorneys can represent you if accused of obstructing a federal audit or destroying corporate records. We know the effective legal strategies that will give you the best chances of a favorable outcome.
Federal obstruction of justice laws is often complex, and not all attorneys are qualified to handle these cases. The law firm of Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. We provide legal representation for federal issues across the United States. Contact us for a case consultation via phone or fill out the contact form.