Evidence tells a story. Because determinations made in court are mainly based on the available evidence, the act of tampering with evidence to make it tell a different story than what happened is a serious offense.
In California, it is a crime under Penal Code 141 PC to tamper with evidence or to plant evidence in any legal matter. You could face up to a year in jail if you're convicted.
PC 141 says, “(a) Except as provided in subdivisions (b) and (c), anyone who knowingly, willfully, intentionally, and wrongfully alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves any physical matter, digital image, or video recording, with the intent that the action will result in someone being charged with a crime or that the physical matter will be wrongfully produced as genuine or true upon a trial, proceeding, or inquiry, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Subsection (b) says that a peace officer who commits the same acts described above is guilty of a felony punishable by two, three, or five years in the state prison.
Subsection (c) says that a “prosecuting attorney who intentionally and in bad faith alters, modifies, conceals, or withholds any physical matter…..or relevant exculpatory material or information, knowing it's relevant to the outcome of the case at trial, proceeding, or inquiry, is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years in prison.”
Tampering or planting evidence is considered an obstruction of justice and could be filed as either a misdemeanor or felony crime based on the case's specific details. Let's review this state law in more detail below.
Overview of Penal Code 141 PC
PC 141 makes it a criminal offense for anyone who "knowingly, willfully, intentionally, and wrongfully alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves" evidence, whether to make a person appear guilty of a crime or to otherwise present that false evidence in a trial, hearing, or another proceeding. Under the law, any of the following may be considered "evidence:"
- Any physical object;
- A digital image;
- A video recording.
Planting or tampering with evidence is not limited to criminal inquiries or trials; it also applies to civil trials and almost any other type of legal proceedings.
If you willfully plant or tamper with any physical objects, digital images, or video that could be used as evidence in any legal matter, you can be charged with a crime under PC 141.
Any civilian who plants or tampers with evidence can be charged with a crime; however, if you are a peace officer or prosecuting attorney who tampers with evidence, the crime and the possible penalties are much more severe.
What Are Some Examples?
EXAMPLE 1: Debbie walks into the living room and sees her boyfriend, Zack, with a gun in his hand and a dead man beside him on the floor. Zack admits that he shot and killed the man during an argument and worries aloud that this will be his third "strike."
Debbie takes the gun from Zack, wipes it clean, puts it in the hand of the dead man to get his fingerprints on it, and lays the weapon next to the body to make it appear like a suicide. Debbie can be charged under PC 141 because although she didn't commit the murder, she tampered with the evidence to divert suspicion away from Zack.
EXAMPLE 2: During a traffic stop, the police officer asks James, the driver, to step out of his car. The officer sees a crack pipe on the floorboard and believes it belongs to James.
After asking James to step away from the car, the officer bends down and plants a baggie of a crack next to the pipe to make it appear like James had drugs. The officer can be charged with planting or tampering with evidence.
EXAMPLE 3: Sarah is filing for divorce from her husband, Jim, and she wants full custody of the kids. To bolster her case, she punches holes in the walls, breaks a lamp, and uses a photo editing program to doctor photos of her and the kids to make it appear like they had cuts and bruises.
She presents this material to her attorney and accuses Jim of domestic violence. Although child custody is a civil matter, not a criminal one, Sarah can be charged under PC 141 because she planted false evidence to obtain the ruling she wanted in court.
What Are the Related Crimes?
- Penal Code 132 PC – offering false evidence;
- Penal Code 134 PC – preparing false evidence;
- Penal Code 135 PC – destroying evidence;
- Penal Code 118 PC – perjury.
What Are the Penalties?
For the average person, violating PC 141 is a misdemeanor offense. If convicted of this crime, you could face up to one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1000.
However, if you're a prosecuting attorney or law enforcement officer charged under PC 141, the crime is charged as a felony, and the penalties upon conviction are more severe:
- For prosecuting attorneys, the sentence is 16 months, two years, or three years in state prison;
- For peace officers, the sentence is two, three, or five years in state prison.
What Are the Defenses to PC 141 Charges?
There are several common defenses to a charge of planting or tampering with evidence, and the best one will depend on the facts of your case.
Some possible defenses are discussed below. Perhaps we can argue that you did not intend to tamper with evidence.
Prosecutors must show you willfully planted or tampered with the evidence for deceptive reasons.
If, for example, you were unaware that your actions were changing the evidence, or if you didn't know what you were doing was a crime, your attorney can make a defense based on a mistake of fact.
Perhaps we can argue that the evidence was not planted or tampered with. It was only misidentified.
Perhaps we can argue that you were falsely accused. It's not uncommon for a criminal to alter the evidence of a crime and then blame someone else for tampering with it, for example. The charges may be dropped if your attorney can make this argument with supporting evidence.
Perhaps negotiation can result in a reduced charge or a case dismissal. Further, maybe we can persuade the prosecuting agency not to file formal criminal charges in the first place through prefiling intervention.
If you were charged with evidence tampering, reach out to us to review the case details and legal options. Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California. Contact us by phone or fill out the contact form.