Tampering with Evidence
A common scene on TV police dramas is a suspect being chased by the police, and as they attempt to get away the suspect swallows or tosses the evidence they’re holding. This is a classic example of tampering with evidence.
Tampering with evidence can be any action that destroys, alters, conceals, or falsifies any sort of evidence. The definition of evidence is also very broad and includes any object, a document, or any sort of record useful to an investigation or inquiry. Let's take a closer look at the legal issue of tampering with evidence.
Elements of the Offense
The prosecution has the burden of establishing all elements of 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: The most 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.
- 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 the
- Evidence: This covers every kind of physical object 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: You may think 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 limits to what can be charged as a crime. For example, the fact that the accused was a knowing participant in an obvious crime, such as selling illegal drugs, doesn’t prove that they knew there could be an investigation into that crime or that the item they destroyed was evidence. So the fact that they threw away a piece of evidence doesn't necessarily mean they were destroying evidence.
Actions that can trigger an evidence tampering charge 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; or
- 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.
Penalties for Evidence Tampering
Tampering with evidence can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The laws of your 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 are likely. A conviction may include a combination of the following:
- Jail up to one year for a state misdemeanor conviction.
- State prison for up to 20 years for felony tampering with evidence.
- You may be ordered to pay as much as $10,000 on a state conviction.
- Federal sentencing may include fines and up to 20 years in prison.
Defending Against a Criminal Charge
When accused of any crime, you are presumed innocent, and have the right to a speedy trial and present a defense. To be found guilty of tampering with evidence, the government must prove you intended to commit each of the elements of this crime. There are also some common defenses that may apply to the facts of your case 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 consequence achieved, can raise a defense of lack of intent.
- Mistake of Fact: Much like lack of intent, mistake of fact is raised to argue that you mistakenly believed that the things you were destroying were not relevant to any legal proceeding. A person charged with selling a controlled substance could throw away a phone number, they no longer needed
- Intoxication: Either voluntary or involuntary intoxication defense relies on the theory that the you can't satisfy all the elements of the crime because you didn't understand what he or she was doing.
- Abandonment: You can argue that evidence was not "destroyed," the item was discarded because it was no longer wanted by the accused.
Let an Attorney Help You with Your Evidence Tampering Charge
Any criminal charge is serious business. If you're not properly defended, 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.