Many US government employees and contractors have access to classified information. Whether you have a top-secret clearance or another type, it is essential to understand the potential consequences of removing classified documents from their authorized storage facility or location.
Below are critical details about the crime of removing classified documents, penalties, defenses, and related information. If you have been accused of removing classified documents or other federal crimes, speak to a Chicago federal criminal attorney immediately.
U.S. Levels of Classification
The United States government has three classification levels to indicate how sensitive information is:
- Top secret
The confidential classification involves information, if revealed, could damage the national security of the U.S. The other classification levels affect information that, if disclosed, could lead to ‘serious’ or ‘exceptionally grave’ damage to U.S. national security.
Other designations indicate a level of restricted access. For instance, people with a secret or top-secret clearance and the critical nuclear weapon designation information designation can access vital information relating to the design and operation of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
In a document, there may be paragraphs that are marked as follows:
- S – secret
- C – confidential
- T – top secret
Overview of 18 U.S. Code 1924 – Unauthorized Removal and Retention of Classified Documents
18 U.S. Code 1924 states that an officer, employee, contractor, or contractor of the U.S. government that possesses classified documents who removes them without authorization and retains them in an unauthorized location has committed a federal crime.
Penalties for Removal of Classified Documents
Federal law states that the removal of classified documents without authorization can be fined and sent to prison for up to five years. Also, stiffer fines and prison sentences are possible, including the death penalty, if you transmit classified documents to an agent of a foreign government.
A 10-year prison sentence and a fine also can be imposed by the U.S. Department of Justice if you publish or make available to an unauthorized person classified documents involving cryptography, codes, or intelligence used by the US or a foreign government.
Further, disclosing classified information that reveals the identity of a covert agent can be punished by a maximum of 15 years in prison. Under the same statute, someone with a behavior pattern that intends to reveal covert agents with reason to believe the activities would damage foreign intelligence can be punished with a three-year prison sentence.
Effective Defenses in Federal Crimes
If you are accused of removing classified documents, you face severe penalties. However, most federal crimes, including removing classified documents, have potentially effective defenses. Many defenses are related to the 4th and 5th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The 4th Amendment deals with law enforcement or other agents of the state conducting illegal searches and seizures. In most cases, federal agents must have a valid search warrant before they check your property for classified documents. They also must have an arrest warrant before taking you into federal custody. The property they must have a warrant to search could be a home, vehicle, cell phone, or computer, among other things.
A valid search warrant or arrest warrant must have probable cause. In most cases, uncorroborated information offered by a paid informant does not provide sufficient probable cause. The informant often receives leniency or money in exchange for the information provided. Most federal criminal defense attorneys will argue strongly to have this type of information thrown out in court.
If the agents of the government do not have a valid search warrant, they must rely on strict exceptions to the rules, including:
- Plain view: This exception pertains to searches of vehicles. If law enforcement sees classified documents on your car, they can take it without a search warrant. Partial plain view cases are a grey area of the law. The officer can take classified documents halfway under the passenger seat. Your attorney will probably argue they cannot.
- Owner consent: As the property owner, you can consent to have the property searched. Consent is considered a voluntary action. For example, this may be valid if someone is driving your car and consents to a search.
- Exigent circumstances: If law enforcement thinks someone is in distress, they can enter a property without a search warrant. They can take any potentially illegal materials in plain view during this entry.
U.S. federal attorneys cannot argue that the search was valid if law enforcement found the contraband they suspected you had, the search was valid. All searches and seizures must follow the U.S. Constitution.
Many Americans are familiar with the 5th Amendment and the right to remain silent. However, many are not aware that the 5th Amendment is much broader than the right not to do anything when you are arrested. Your attorney will make sure you do not do anything that violates your 5th Amendment rights, including posing for photographs, being in a criminal lineup, and other questionable law enforcement actions.
Additionally, your rights under the 5th Amendment start when you are taken into custody. ‘Custody’ means the time when you feel you are not allowed to leave.
These procedural defenses can effectively fight a removal of classified documents charge. Remember that the burden of proof is on federal prosecutors. They must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, so your federal defense attorney only must sway one juror to have a reasonable doubt about your guilt.
Contact a Chicago Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Today
Being under investigation by the US government is a grave matter. Federal law enforcement will likely investigate for weeks or months before you have any idea. Then, suddenly, federal agents appear at your door with an arrest or search warrant.
Whether you are being investigated by the IRS, FBI, DEA, ATF or other federal agencies, it is critical to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The federal government has almost unlimited resources to put you behind bars.
The Law Offices of Vadim Glozman serve all of Illinois, including Chicago, Aurora, Naperville, Schaumburg, Arlington Heights, Evanston, Oak Brook, and Palatine. We can help you if you are the target of a federal investigation or prosecution. Contact our federal criminal attorneys now at (312) 726-9015.