18 U.S. Code § 1369 - Destruction of Veteran Memorials
The United States has a rich history of honoring the sacrifices made by its military veterans. We commemorate those sacrifices with hundreds of memorials and monuments established nationwide.
For that reason, the defacing, destruction, or desecration of these sites is a criminal offense—and when it happens on federal property or when crossing state lines, it's a federal crime under Title 18 U.S. Code 1369. If convicted of violating this law, you could face up to 10 years in federal prison.
Sometimes, mischief and misconduct could result in federal charges if you act maliciously. Federal criminal charges mean you could possibly face time in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
18 U.S.C. 1369 says, “(a) Whoever, in a circumstance described in subsection (b), willfully injures or destroys, or attempts to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monuments on public property commemorating the service of any person or persons in the armed forces of the United States shall be….”
(b) A circumstance described in this subsection is that—
(1) in committing the offense described in subsection (a), the defendant travels or causes another to travel in interstate or foreign commerce or uses the mail or an instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce; or
(2) the structure, plaque, statue, or other monument is located on property owned by, or under the Federal Government's jurisdiction.”
Let's look closer at this federal statute, related crimes, and the penalties below.
What Does the Law Say?
Enacted as part of the Veterans' Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act of 2003, 18 U.S.C. 1369 criminalizes the willful injury or destruction of, or attempt to injure or destroy, any structure, plaque, statue, or other monuments on public property commemorating the service of anyone in the United States armed forces. Protected monuments may include, but are not limited to:
- Statues of war heroes;
- Memorials and monuments;
- Plaques commemorating individual veterans or groups of veterans;
- Veterans' cemeteries.
18 U.S.C. 1369 specifically applies in either of the following circumstances:
- When the crime involves "interstate or foreign commerce" (i.e., crossing state lines or international boundaries) or the U.S. Mail; or
- When the affected monument is located on federally owned property.
Note that this law does not necessarily apply to damage done locally to local memorials, such as a memorial in a city park honoring that city's veterans, unless the memorial is deemed federal property or on federal land.
While this behavior likely counts as a crime under local or state ordinances, it only comes under federal jurisdiction when federal property or interstate commerce is involved.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Jared has strong anti-war sentiments, and as a political statement, he goes to a veteran's cemetery, spray paints an epithet across several veterans' headstones, and knocks over several others. Jared can be charged with a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. 1369.
EXAMPLE 2: As a prank, Emily paints a mustache on a statue of a local war hero in her town plaza. While Emily may be charged under local ordinances, she would not be charged with a federal crime because the statute was not on federal lands and was local to the area.
EXAMPLE 3: Same scenario as Example 2, except that Emily's town straddles a state line, and she travels across that line to spray paint the mustache. In that case, Emily could be charged with a federal crime because although the monument is on local grounds, the action came under federal jurisdiction when Emily traveled across a state line to commit the crime.
What are the Related Federal Offenses?
18 U.S. Code Chapter 65 Malicious Mischief has several federal statutes that are related to 18 U.S.C. 1369 destruction of veterans' memorial, such as the following:
- 18 U.S.C. 1361 – Government property or contracts;
- 18 U.S.C. 1362 – Communication lines, stations, or systems;
- 18 U.S.C. 1363 – Buildings or property within territorial jurisdiction;
- 18 U.S.C. 1364 – Interference with foreign commerce by violence;
- 18 U.S.C. 1365 – Tampering with consumer products;
- 18 U.S.C. 1366 – Destruction of an energy facility:
- 18 U.S.C. 1367 – Interference with the operation of a satellite:
- 18 U.S.C. 1368 – Harming animals used in law enforcement.
What Are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 1369?
Being convicted under 18 U.S.C. 1369 for destroying a veteran memorial can come with severe penalties and fines. These include the following:
- Imprisonment in federal prison for up to ten years.
- Fines of up to $250,000.
What Are the Defenses for 18 U.S.C. 1369?
If you're charged at the federal level for damaging or destroying a veteran memorial, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can employ several possible defenses to combat the charges, as discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that you did not willfully cause damage or destruction (lack of intent). To be convicted, the prosecution must prove that you willfully caused injury or destruction to the memorial or that you deliberately attempted to do so.
If your attorney can demonstrate that the damage was accidental or unintentional, you may be able to avoid a conviction.
Perhaps we can argue there was a mistake of fact. Your attorney may argue that you were unaware that the damaged property was a protected veteran memorial or that you believed the property was abandoned or not protected under the law. This is another approach to saying you did not willfully break the law.
Perhaps we can argue that you were exercising your First Amendment rights. In some cases, a defendant may argue that their actions were a form of protected speech or expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This defense is highly fact-specific and difficult to prove but is commonly used.
Perhaps we can argue that there is insufficient evidence. The prosecution must provide sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were the person who committed the crime. If your attorney can successfully challenge the credibility or sufficiency of the evidence, they may be able to secure a dismissal or acquittal for you.
You can contact our law firm to review the case details by phone or through the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California.