Here's the scene. Two men claiming to be a part of an anti-government militia cut down communication cables from a railroad used by the United States military. Both men know this will stop or delay the government from delivering military weapons and supplies to a nearby naval base operated by the U.S. Navy. They are caught in the act by local law enforcement. Is there a criminal offense here?

A federal prosecutor might bring charges against these two men for "sabotage," a crime against the government. A local prosecutor may see the crime as vandalism. How does their intent factor into the decision?

While you may have heard of the term sabotage from an Alfred Hitchcock movie or in a spy novel, the crime of sabotage is broken up into several different offenses, as you will see below.

This article presents information on the definition of sabotage, the elements of the crime, and possible penalties. Acts associated with sabotage can lead to prosecution at either the federal or state level. In most cases, sabotage is a serious federal crime that can land you in prison for up to 20 years if found guilty.

What Is Sabotage?

The word “sabotage" comes from the French word saboter. A sabot was a wooden shoe often worn by inhabitants of rural communities. During the Industrial Revolution, many agricultural workers came to the cities to work in the new industries. In time, the word saboter became associated with bungled work. As workers began to organize for better conditions, the concept of damaging the machinery or producing shoddy products as protest became known as “sabotage." As a labor tool, sabotage could cause economic loss to the employer. This might bring him to the bargaining table.

In the example above, the two militiamen are actively attempting to stop the Navy from receiving materials related to national defense. While the men may be doing this as an act of protest, the effect is to thwart the Navy's defense abilities.

The understanding of criminal sabotage as destroying, damaging, or defectively producing property with the specific intent to impede a nation's ability to defend itself or make war became popular in the early 20th century. Yet, examples of sabotage go back much further.

During the U.S. Civil War, members of the Confederacy designed the coal torpedo. Using coal pieces as design patterns for a hollowed-out shell, Confederate operatives placed gunpowder inside the device. The coal torpedo was closed with a threaded plug. Dipped in wax and coated with coal dust, the torpedo resembled a piece of coal. These incendiary devices could get tossed into the boilers of Union steamships carrying soldiers or passengers. Their devastation would cause both military and economic loss.

Sabotage Under Federal Law

Looking a little closer at the federal sabotage statutes (18 U.S.C. Section 2151 to 2156), we can see that sabotage against the government can happen in a variety of ways. There can be various levels of criminal intent necessary to achieve the crime.

Under 18 U.S.C. Section 2155, a person commits sabotage if they:

  • Act with intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States; and
  • Willfully injure, destroy, contaminate, or infect any national-defense material, national-defense premises, or national-defense utilities (or attempt to do any of these acts)

This offense is a felony and has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. However, if it results in the death of any person, the imprisonment could be for any number of years, including life in prison.

When a person acts with similar intent to interfere with national defense, sabotage laws also prohibit attempts or actions aimed at producing defective national defense materials (see 18 U.S.C. Section 2156). This crime can lead to up to 10 years in prison.

Yet, someone may commit sabotage under other circumstances. For example, under 18 U.S.C. Section 2152, a person can commit sabotage if they either:

  • Willfully injure, destroy, or engage in trespassing upon any works, property, or material of any submarine mine, torpedo, fortification, or harbor-defense system of the United States
  • Willfully interfere with the operation or use of such submarine mine, torpedo, fortification, or harbor-defense system
  • Knowingly, willfully, or wantonly violate any order or regulation of the president governing persons or vessels in defensive sea areas

This offense is a felony, subjecting an offender to a fine and up to 5 years imprisonment.

Sabotage During War

Two types of sabotage set forth in federal laws can only happen during wartime. Efforts to destroy war materials, war premises, or war utilities during war will bring harsher penalties. Wartime sabotage (18 U.S.C. Section 2153) includes the following elements:

  1. When the U.S. is at war or in a time of national emergency declared by the president or Congress;
  2. With intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the U.S. or any associate nation in preparing for or carrying on war or defense activities;
  3. Willfully injure, destroy, contaminate, or infect (or make attempts to do the same); and
  4. To any war material, war premises, or war utilities

Likewise, conduct during wartime or a national emergency with similar intent related to the production of defective wartime material, war premises, or war utilities is prohibited (18 U.S.C. Section 2154). These wartime sabotage offenses come with fines and have a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

Federal crimes of sabotage do not include the possibility of the death penalty. Yet, related federal and military crimes such as espionage can lead to a death sentence.

Sabotage or Terrorism?

Experts distinguish crimes of sabotage from the federal crime of domestic terrorism. Terrorism has to do with acts that are "dangerous to human life" that appear intended to either:

  • Intimidate or coerce a civilian population
  • Influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion
  • Affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

While we've certainly seen acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, such as the 9/11 attacks, sabotage has been more clandestine in U.S. history. One notable example happened in 1942 during World War II when Nazi saboteurs came to the U.S. in U-boats in an attempt to sabotage the war effort. The Nazis were ordered to attack transport hubs, hydroelectric power plants, and industrial facilities. The effort ended when one of the men eventually turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Federal authorities then succeeded in tracking down all the enemy operatives before any government functions were at risk.

Sabotage: Related State Crimes

The crime of sabotage can occur at the state level as well. State criminal codes may not label such offenses as "sabotage." It is more likely that a state criminal case will focus on efforts to damage or destroy a public facility or to impede a government function. For example, the Ohio Revised Code includes serious criminal penalties for such conduct.

The crime of disrupting public services may occur when a person, purposefully by any means, or knowingly by damaging or tampering with property, does any of the following acts:

  • Interrupts or impairs television, radio, telephone, telegraph, or other mass communication services
  • Interrupts or impairs police, fire, or other public service communications; radar, loran, radio, or other electronic aids to air or marine navigation or communications; or amateur or citizen band radio communications being used for public service or emergency communications
  • Interrupts or impairs public transportation, school bus transportation, or water supply, gas, power, or other utility service to the public
  • Substantially impairs the ability of law enforcement officers, firefighters, rescue personnel, emergency medical services personnel, or emergency facility personnel to respond to an emergency or to protect and preserve any person or property from serious physical harm

This same law also bans the use of a computer device or the internet to disrupt, interrupt, or impair emergency, commercial, or governmental operations. Violations of the law can result in a felony conviction and a prison sentence.

Similar serious crimes at the state level may punish vandalism against government buildings and structures. States also enact criminal statutes against interference and impairment of the movement of goods and persons by air or rail. These state laws all seek to prevent or punish acts of sabotage directed at normal government functions and the infrastructure of commerce.

Need More Information About Sabotage Charges? Get Legal Help

Crimes against the government are serious business. While, as a nation, we all cherish the right to peacefully protest, acts that harm our national security or endanger our citizens are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If you or someone you know has been charged with sabotage or any other similar crime, consider seeking legal advice. You can receive more information about sabotage and other federal crimes by speaking with a criminal defense attorney today.

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