A common scene on police drama shows is that of a suspect, fearing imminent capture by the police, destroying or damaging evidence. That suspect might be tossing incriminating documents into an open fireplace or flushing drugs down a toilet. These scenes depict classic examples of tampering with evidence.
Tampering with evidence is a crime that encompasses any action that destroys, alters, conceals, or falsifies any sort of evidence. The definition of evidence is also very broad and includes any object, document, or other sort of record useful to an investigation or a civil or criminal proceeding, regardless of whether it is pending or ongoing.
Elements of the Offense
The prosecution has the burden of establishing all elements of a crime to prove that a person has committed the offence. Each of these very specific elements must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction. The basic elements of tampering with evidence include:
- Intent: One important element of this crime is the accused's state of mind. The prosecution must show that evidence was willfully and purposefully interfered with. Accidental destruction or simple abandonment (throwing away) is not enough to prove intent. Some statutes might also require knowledge of the investigation or proceeding.
- Knowledge: A person acts knowingly when they are aware that their conduct will probably cause a certain result. With a tampering charge, the accused must believe that there is a high chance that their actions will result in damage to the evidence.
- Evidence: This includes every kind of physical object or document that might be produced in any kind of legal trial, proceeding, or investigation. It also includes digital images and video recordings.
- Awareness of a Potential or Pending Investigation: It seems obvious that a person committing a crime must know that the potential exists for an investigation. However, even when the accused participates in an "obvious crime," the prosecution must prove the evidence was tampered with in contemplation of a current or future proceeding.
The Act of Tampering
Tampering is a very broad concept that seems to cover any action that conceals a crime, but there are some limits to what can result in charges. For example, the fact that the accused was a knowing participant in an obvious crime, such as selling illegal drugs, does not necessarily prove that they knew there could be an investigation into that crime or that the item they destroyed was evidence. As a result, the fact that a suspect threw away a piece of evidence does not necessarily mean they had the culpable state of mind for tampering with evidence.
Actions that can trigger a charge for tampering with evidence include:
- Alter, destroy, conceal, or remove a thing or item with the purpose of hiding the truth or making an item unavailable for a proceeding or investigation
- Make, present, or use an item in a manner to deceive any other party who is or may be engaged in the proceeding or investigation
It is important to note that prosecutors often charge tampering in connection with another crime or instead of charging another crime that can no longer be charged because of destroyed evidence.
Penalties for Evidence Tampering
Tampering with evidence can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The laws of each state and the nature of the alleged actions will determine the level of punishment. For example, if the accused begins flushing evidence down the toilet as the police walk through the door, higher penalties could result. A conviction may include a combination of the following:
- Jail up to one year for a state misdemeanor conviction
- Fines as specified in state statutes
- State prison sentences in states that treat tampering as a felony
- Prison for up to 20 years for federal charges tampering with evidence
Defending Against a Criminal Charge
Anyone accused of a crime is presumed innocent. People accused of crimes also have important due process rights, such as the right to a speedy trial and the right to face accusers.
To be found guilty of tampering with evidence, the government must convince a jury of each of the elements of this crime beyond a reasonable doubt. There are also some common defenses that can be employed in defense of a tampering charge, including:
- Lack of Intent: The prosecution must prove that the accused intended to commit that act of tampering with evidence and intended to achieve the final result. For this reason, a person who commits an act involuntarily, holds a mistaken belief, or did not intend the destruction of evidence can raise a defense of lack of intent.
- Mistake of Fact: Much like lack of intent, mistake of fact is raised to argue that the defendant mistakenly believed that the things destroyed were not relevant to any legal proceeding. A person charged with tampering in connection with a drug trafficking investigation could throw away an old cell phone with valuable information but claim that the phone was simply no longer needed.
Let an Attorney Help You with Your Evidence Tampering Charge
Any criminal charge is serious business. If you do not have proper defense counsel, you could face a lengthy criminal sentence and a conviction on your record. The law relating to tampering with evidence can be complex. An experienced criminal defense attorney can investigate the claims made against you and help determine which defenses would be most effective in your case.