Tampering with evidence can be a serious criminal offense, depending on a person's intent and the circumstances. Evidence tampering is any action that alters, conceals, destroys or falsifies evidence. That evidence can be a document, object or a record of any kind (including digital records like emails, videos or photos) that would be useful in a criminal investigation.

What Do Prosecutors Have to Prove?

To prove an evidence tampering charge, prosecutors have to show that the basic elements of the crime were present. These essentially involve a person's knowledge that a piece of evidence could potentially be used in a case and one's purposeful tampering.

For example, if a person deletes an email or throws away a piece of stolen property that he or she knows could be sought in an investigation, that would be tampering. However, if a person throws something away or deletes an email without having any reason to believe that it could be evidence, that doesn't constitute tampering.

Potential Evidence Tampering Defenses

There are a number of possible defenses against a tampering charge. For example, you may be able to argue "lack of intent" or "mistake of fact" if you can show that you didn't know the importance of the item that you destroyed. You may also be able to claim that you didn't intend to destroy it or that you were forced to do so.

Even if you are charged with another crime, if you can argue that you didn't realize that a piece of evidence was relevant, you may be able to escape an additional charge of evidence tampering. Of course, if you're charged with robbery and you destroyed a stolen item, or if you flushed illegal drugs down the toilet when the police came to your home, that defense likely won't hold up.

There's also the good old intoxication defense. You may be able to argue that you were so drunk at the time you destroyed or altered a piece of evidence that you didn't realize the consequences of what you were doing.

What Are the Criminal Penalties?

These vary, depending on the circumstances and the importance of the evidence. You could face either a misdemeanor or felony charge, and be tried in state or federal court. Penalties can include up to 20 years behind bars and/or significant fines.

If you are facing evidence tampering charges, either alone or along with charges involving another crime, it's essential to seek guidance from an experienced criminal defense attorney. He or she can help you determine the best defense strategy for your specific situation.