It is against federal law to destroy or remove property to prevent the government from lawfully seizing it. The crime falls within the realm of obstruction of justice, and penalties can include up to five years in federal prison and fines.
If you face federal charges of destruction of property to prevent seizure, you should consult with an experienced federal defense attorney who can help you understand your defense options and fight for your rights and future.
What Is Destruction of Property to Prevent Seizure?
The law prohibits someone from trying to get rid of property that the federal government has granted lawful authority to seize. The most common reasons the government seizes property are:
- The property is evidence in a crime or investigation
- The property is under forfeiture to satisfy a debt, such as back taxes
- The property was acquired through illegal activity
The government has the authority to seize property from people convicted of certain felonies, such as drug trafficking or money laundering. However, the government must show the person used the property to commit a crime or that they acquired it by committing a crime, either by stealing the property directly or buying it with the money they stole.
Furthermore, the government can seize property if they can show it is proceeds or earnings from someone's criminal activity. Forfeiture and seizure laws are designed to punish someone by reducing or eliminating their profits from illegal ventures.
To prosecute you for destruction of property to prevent seizure, the government must show the following:
- A search warrant had been lawfully issued, or proper authority had been granted to seize it.
- You willfully destroyed or removed the property, or you attempted to.
- You destroyed or removed it, or tried to, specifically to keep it from being seized.
The law states that it is illegal to destroy, damage, dispose of, or transfer property or take any action to prevent or impair the government's lawful authority to take it. The crime is a felony, and you can receive up to five years in federal prison, along with fines.
Examples of the Crime
Any number of scenarios can lead to a charge of destruction of property to prevent seizure. While obvious examples may include flushing illegal drugs down the toilet or burning up incriminating documents and evidence, other scenarios can lead to federal charges as well. Consider the following:
Federal agents show up on Mr. Doe's door with a search warrant because they suspect him of having child pornography on his computer. Before they can seize his computer, Mr. Doe takes a hammer and smashes it to pieces. This prevents federal agents from being able to take the computer and investigate its content.
Ms. Smith receives a notice from the IRS that it has placed a lien on her assets and may seize her property to satisfy back taxes. Ms. Smith then immediately transfers large sums of money to a family member or friend's account and signs over the title of her car to someone else. She has committed a federal crime because she is willfully trying to prevent the government from seizing her property.
Charges can also result if you moved a vehicle or other property to another location to keep authorities from finding it. The same holds if you alter the appearance of a piece of property or try to destroy or damage its serial number, VIN number, or other identifying information.
Federal law defines other types of criminal conduct that are related to destruction of property to prevent seizure, and they include:
- Trying to prevent an official from seizing your property by using force against them or intimidating them
- Trying to “rescue” (or take back) property authorities have lawfully seized
It is also a crime for a ship's captain or anyone with authority over a ship to prevent or forbid law enforcement from boarding the vessel to conduct a lawful search. Shipmasters may also face sanctions if they provide false information about the ship or anyone on board.
Defenses for Destruction of Property to Prevent Seizure
Considering the potential impact on your life if you are convicted, you want to evaluate all of your options for developing an effective defense.
One option is whether the government lawfully obtained a search warrant and had the authority to seize your property. Even if authorities presented a warrant, the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure, and it prohibits the following:
- Obtaining a search warrant maliciously or without probable cause
- Searching private property without a warrant
- Exceeding authority when executing a search warrant
If authorities do not have a warrant or exceed their authority, you may be able to provide a defense that your actions in preventing the seizure of your property were reasonable and justified.
Additionally, the law is clear that you must have intentionally destroyed or removed property to prevent seizure. Perhaps you destroyed the property by accident, or a virus wiped out files on your computer. Maybe an act of nature is to blame.
Also, you could have destroyed the property on your own without knowing authorities were intent on seizing it. For instance, maybe you were a known drug user who decided to quit, and you destroyed all of your drugs to eliminate the temptation. Then the authorities showed up to conduct a search and accused you of purposefully destroying potential evidence. While you may face drug charges, you shouldn't be prosecuted for intentionally destroying property to keep authorities from seizing it.
Talk to an Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
The laws involving search and seizure and destruction of property to prevent seizure are complex, and you need to consult with an experienced attorney who can review your case and advise you of your best options.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has many years of experience defending clients against federal charges in district courts in New Jersey. He can evaluate your case and help you devise the strongest defense. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.