Destroying evidence during an investigation may seem like an obvious example of obstruction of justice.
Title 18 U.S. Code §1519 is the law that refers to destroying, altering or falsifying records. It is relevant when a company or individual is under federal investigation or during a bankruptcy.
The language of §1519 actually gets much more specific than mere “destruction, alteration, or falsification.” Hiding evidence, making fake entries in documents and records or mutilating them in some way is also illegal.
Types of evidence
Records and documents are not the only types of evidence this law refers to. It also mentions tangible objects. There is a limit to which objects are evidence in this type of case, though.
For example, in one case, a ship captain attempted to avoid federal penalties for undersized fish by having a crewmember throw them overboard. Although he received a conviction for violating §1519, he appealed, and the Supreme Court ruled that tangible objects have to be those that can preserve or record information. Therefore, a flash drive or computer could be a tangible object, but a fish cannot be.
It is worth noting that, regarding the destruction of evidence that is not information related, §1512(c) of Title 18 does apply to other objects, such as fish.
This law also includes the words “knowingly,” “intent” and “in relation to or contemplation of.” If a CEO destroys a flash drive — or tells someone else to destroy it — because he knows it contains incriminating information related to a federal investigation, that definitely violates §1519. It may also be a violation if there is no investigation but the CEO knows that there may be one soon. However, getting rid of old records without knowing they may be relevant to an investigation could be a different matter.
Ultimately, as specific as the law is, it also leaves room for legal interpretation. A solid defense may protect a person charged with violating §1519 from harsh penalties that typically include steep fines and years in prison.