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1663. Protection Of Government Property -- Protection Of Public Records And Documents

The taking of a public record or document is prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 641. The destruction of such records may be reached under 18 U.S.C. §  1361. In both instances, however, proving a $100 loss, the prerequisite to a felony conviction, may be difficult. Thus, neither of these statutes adequately protects government records.

The necessary measure of protection for government documents and records is provided by 18 U.S.C. § 2071. Section 2071(a) contains a broad prohibition against destruction of government records or attempts to destroy such records. This section provides that whoever: willfully and unlawfully; conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates or destroys; or attempts to conceal, remove, mutilate, obliterate or destroy; or carries away with intent to conceal, remove, mutilate, obliterate or destroy; any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document or other thing deposited in any public office may be punished by imprisonment for three years, a $2, 000 fine, or both.

There are several important aspects to this offense. First, it is a specific intent crime. This means that the defendant must act intentionally with knowledge that he is violating the law. See United States v. Simpson, 460 F.2d 515, 518 (9th Cir. 1972). Moreover, one case has suggested that this specific intent requires that the defendant know that the documents involved are public records. See United States v. DeGroat, 30 F. 764, 765 (E.D.Mich. 1887).

The acts proscribed by this section are defined broadly. Essentially three types of conduct are prohibited by 18 U.S.C. § 2071(a). These are: (1) concealment, removal, mutilation, obliteration or destruction of records; (2) any attempt to commit these proscribed acts; and (3) carrying away any record with the intent to conceal, remove, mutilate or destroy it. It should be noted that all of these acts involve either misappropriation of or damage to public records. This has led one court to conclude that the mere photocopying of these records does not violate 18 U.S.C. § 2071. See United States v. Rosner, 352 F. Supp. 915, 919-22 (S.D.N.Y. 1972).

Subsection (b) of 18 U.S.C. § 2071 contains a similar prohibition specifically directed at custodians of public records. Any custodian of a public record who "willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys (any record) shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States." While the range of acts proscribed by this subsection is somewhat narrower than subsection (a), it does provide the additional penalty of forfeiture of position with the United States.

Title 18 contains two other provisions, of somewhat narrower application, which relate to public records. Section 285 prohibits the unauthorized taking, use and attempted use of any document, record or file relating to a claim against the United States for purposes of procuring payment of that claim. Section 1506 prohibits the theft, alteration or falsification of any record or process in any court of the United States. Both of these sections are punishable by a $5,000 fine or imprisonment for five years.

[cited in USAM 9-66.400]

Updated May 21, 2015