Treason Laws, Charges & Punishment

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Treason is the only crime that is specifically written into the US Constitution. It is defined as intentionally betraying one’s allegiance to their country by levying war against the US government, and/or giving aid and comfort to its enemies. This is the most serious criminal offense one can commit against the government. Punishment is imprisonment or death.

Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution states:

‘Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.’

The Constitution authorizes the US Congress to set penalties for this crime, but it may not change the definition or create varying degrees of treason. The federal treason statute is 18 USC 2381 and it is similar to the language in the Constitution. It features a five year prison term and $10,000 fine.

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Treason Laws

The Constitution outlines the definition of treason, as stated above, and most state constitutions also have a treason provision that is similar. State treason prosecutions are very rare; in fact, only three people are known to have been charged with treason at the state level. This is probably due to the fact that treason threatens the entire country, not just one state.

Treason Crimes & Charges

There are two primary ways to commit treason:

  • Levying war: This is not to say that simply one must declare war to commit treason. It also includes forcible opposition to the carrying out of public laws. ‘Forcible opposition’ usually requires the true use of force by more than one person with a common person of preventing a law from being enforced.
  • Providing aid and comfort: This can include offering financial assistance to harboring a soldier who is an enemy of the country. Any act that encourages the hostile designs of the enemy or weakens the US is providing aid and comfort.

To prove treason, the prosecution has to have either a confession or two witnesses who testify to the same overt act by the defendant. An overt act is defined as one that shows criminal intent and provides the ability to accomplish a crime. The overt act does not have to actually be a crime itself. Many types of actions can be overt treasonous acts. Some of these include making online posts and also providing weapons and ammunition. The main thing to remember is whether the person took the action with the intent to carry out treason.

A charge of treason has to specify relevant overt acts, which is to include where they took place. It is not needed that all participants commit the same act. Different people can commit different overt acts as part of a single plan of treason. If the government has alleged several overt acts, it only has to prove one of them with two witnesses.

The testimony from two witnesses must prove the overt act, but the intent to betray can be shown just like with any other crime.

Treason is related to other federal crimes, and more than one criminal statute may apply to the same conduct. So, something that is not proven as treason can constitute another type of offense:

  • Espionage: This is the obtaining of classified information that is related to national defense for use by a person from another country. If you help a US ally, the charge would not be treason but espionage.
  • Terrorism: One of the major differences between terrorism and treason is that terrorism statutes can apply to any foreign national and do not require that the US be involved in a war.
  • Seditious conspiracy: This consists of trying to overthrow or destroy the government by force. This does not require that the defendant owe allegiance to the US.
  • Conspiracy to levy war: This is a precursor to treason but does not require that people must be assembled and ready to use force.

Treason Punishment

Treason is punishable by death. If a death sentence is not imposed, the defendant can be sent to prison for five years and be given a $10,000 fine. No one who has been convicted of treason may ever hold a federal office.

Treason Sentencing Guidelines

Treason is the only crime that is mentioned in the US Constitution, and the maximum penalty is death. However the Constitution also states that someone convicted of this crime can receive five years in prison.

Treason Cases

While few people have been convicted of treason in US history, there have been a few cases in the last century:

  • Walter Allen: Convicted in 1922 for his part in the 1921 miners’ war with coal companies and the US Army in West Virginia. He received a 10 year sentence and was fined. (WV Culture)
  • Robert H. Best: An American foreign correspondent who covered European events in the 1930s. He later became a Nazi supporter and broadcasted Nazi propaganda during the war. He was sentenced to life in prison. (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly)
  • Mildred E. Gillars: Known as Axis Sally during World War II, she was an American broadcaster who worked for the Third Reich in Nazi Germany. She was sentenced to 10-30 years in prison. (net)

Treason Quick Links & References

Treason Laws by State

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming