In the 2004 action-adventure film National Treasure, Nicholas Cage plays treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates who formulates a plan to steal the original Declaration of Independence document from the National Archives so he could decode an invisible map on the back leading to a treasure stockpile. Gates uses identity impersonation and a wide array of spy gadgets to gain entry to the document preservation room during a formal gala and take the Declaration of Independence out of the building. Later, Gates uses lemon juice and blow dryers on the original document to reveal information written in invisible ink while undoubtedly causing damage to the ancient parchment at the same time. A good portion of the film depicts Gates running from government agents that wish to capture and prosecute him for the theft.
The original handwritten Declaration of Independence is an important historical artifact containing the signatures of 56 delegates who announced that the thirteen colonies would no longer be a part of the British Empire but would instead become an independent nation. The roster of Founding Fathers who signed the document include Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock with the first and largest signature. The original document has been retain and preserved for over 240 years, usually on display for the public at the National Archives building. Its importance and value to American history is so important that it was stored for safekeeping during World War II at the United States Bullion Depository so it would not be destroyed by an attack on Washington D.C. by the Axis Powers. What would the criminal penalties be for anyone who tried to steal or damage the original Declaration of Independence in real life?
As you can imagine, there are a slew of federal criminal statutes that would apply to a would-be thief in stealing the Declaration of Independence:
- 18 U.S.C. 668 (THEFT OF MAJOR ARTWORK) – “A person who steals or obtains by fraud from the care, custody, or control of a ‘museum’ any ‘object of cultural heritage’… shall be fined [up to $250,000], imprisoned not more than 10 years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. §668(b)(1). “Museum” means “an organized and permanent institution, the activities of which affect interstate or foreign commerce, that is situated in the United States; is established for an essentially educational or aesthetic purpose; has a professional staff; and owns, utilizes, and cares for tangible objects that are exhibited to the public on a regular schedule.” 18 U.S.C. §668(a)(1). “Object of cultural heritage” means “an object that is over 100 years old and worth in excess of $5,000 or worth at least $100,000.” 18 U.S.C. §668(a)(2).
- 18 U.S.C. 2112 (THEFT OF PERSONAL PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES) – “Whoever robs or attempts to rob another of any kind or description of personal property belonging to the United States, shall be imprisoned not more than fifteen years.”
Any injury caused to the Declaration of Independence would also be punishable as a separate felony under 18 U.S.C. §1361:
- “Whoever willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States, or of any department or agency thereof, or any property which has been or is being manufactured or constructed for the United States, or any department or agency thereof, or attempts to commit any of the foregoing offenses, shall be punished as follows: If the damage or attempted damage to such property exceeds the sum of $1,000, by a fine [up to $250,000] or imprisonment for not more than ten years, or both; if the damage or attempted damage to such property does not exceed the sum of $1,000, by a fine [up to $100,000] or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”
In addition, a person would be liable for any other crimes committed in the course of stealing the Declaration of Independence:
- 18 U.S.C. §1036 (ENTRY BY FALSE PRETENSES TO ANY REAL PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES) – “Whoever, by any fraud or false pretense, enters or attempts to enter any real property belonging in whole or in part to, or leased by, the United States” shall be punished by “a fine [up to $250,000] or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both, if the offense is committed with the intent to commit a felony.” This would include the National Archives building.
- 18 U.S.C. 912 (PRETENDING TO BE OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE OF THE UNITED STATES) – “Whoever falsely assumes or pretends to be an officer or employee acting under the authority of the United States or any department, agency or officer thereof, and acts as such, or in such pretended character demands or obtains any money, paper, document, or thing of value, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
- 18 U.S.C. §1363 (DAMAGING BUILDINGS AND PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES) – “Whoever, within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, willfully and maliciously destroys or injures any structure, conveyance, or other real or personal property, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than five years, or both, and if the building be a dwelling, or the life of any person be placed in jeopardy, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”
- 18 U.S.C. 1114 (KILLING OR ATTEMPTING TO KILL OFFICER OR EMPLOYEE OF THE UNITED STATES) – “Whoever kills or attempts to kill any officer or employee of the United States or of any agency in any branch of the United States Government (including any member of the uniformed services) while such officer or employee is engaged in or on account of the performance of official duties, or any person assisting such an officer or employee in the performance of such duties or on account of that assistance, shall be punished”:
- In the case of murder, “[w]hoever is guilty of murder in the first degree shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life; [w]hoever is guilty of murder in the second degree, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.” 18 U.S.C. §1111.
- In the case of manslaughter, “[w]hoever is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both; [w]hoever is guilty of involuntary manslaughter, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. §1112.
- In the case of attempted murder or manslaughter, “for an attempt to commit murder be imprisoned not more than twenty years or fined…, or both, and for an attempt to commit manslaughter be imprisoned not more than seven years or fined [up to $250,000], or both.” 18 U.S.C. §1113.
- 18 U.S.C. 2114 (ASSAULT WITH INTENT TO ROB PROPERTY OF THE UNITED STATES) – “A person who assaults any person having lawful charge, control, or custody of any mail matter or of any money or other property of the United States, with intent to rob, steal, or purloin such mail matter, money, or other property of the United States, or robs or attempts to rob any such person of mail matter, or of any money, or other property of the United States, shall, for the first offense, be imprisoned not more than ten years; and if in effecting or attempting to effect such robbery he wounds the person having custody of such mail, money, or other property of the United States, or puts his life in jeopardy by the use of a dangerous weapon, or for a subsequent offense, shall be imprisoned not more than twenty-five years.” 18 U.S.C. §2114(a).
- 18 U.S.C. 111 (ASSAULTING, RESISTING, OR IMPEDING CERTAIN OFFICERS OR EMPLOYEES) – “Whoever forcibly assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with [certain person employed by the United States] while engaged in or on account of the performance of official duties shall”:
- “[W]here the acts… constitute only simple assault, be fined [up to $100,000] or imprisoned not more than one year, or both, and where such acts involve physical contact with the victim of that assault or the intent to commit another felony, be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. §111(a)(2).
- “Whoever… uses a deadly or dangerous weapon (including a weapon intended to cause death or danger but that fails to do so by reason of a defective component) or inflicts bodily injury, shall be fined [up to $250,000] or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.” 18 U.S.C. §111(b).
For multiple crimes where the defendant is facing multiple terms of imprisonment, federal judges have the discretion in determining if the sentences will be served concurrently (at the same time) or consecutively (one sentence after another). 18 U.S.C. §3584. In the aggregate, all of the various convictions related to stealing the Declaration of Independence can add up to several decades behind bars.
In the movie, Benjamin Franklin Gates was able to evade prosecution when he ultimately located the treasure and was able to set up the main antagonist to take the fall for these crimes. In real life, he would have certainly been prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned whether he found any treasure or not. Don’t let Hollywood movie magic deter from the cold truth that the theft of the Declaration of Independence would not go unpunished no matter what the reason was for taking.
If you or a loved one have any legal questions or need representation in court, then do not hesitate to contact the experienced attorneys at Kershaw, Vititoe & Jedinak PLC for assistance today.
Have a safe and happy Independence Day!