Few charges carry as much weight or gravity as treason. Despite its profound significance, actual cases of treason are exceptionally rare, especially in contemporary times. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. has convicted fewer than 12 Americans of federal treason in U.S. history.
How Does the U.S. Define Treason?
Treason is considered one of the most serious crimes against a nation’s government. Its definition is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as follows:
“Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
Specifically, the Constitution says treason only occurs in one of two instances. First, when someone who owes allegiance to the U.S. “levies war” against the nation, such as by taking up arms against the government. Second, when they “adhere” to the nation’s enemies and “give them aid and comfort.” This means showing loyalty to entities or nations in active opposition to the U.S. and taking steps to assist them, such as by providing material support or information.
Is Treason a Crime at the State Level?
Yes. Nevada law criminalizes treason against the state just like the Constitution criminalizes treason against the nation. State law defines treason as levying war against the people of Nevada, adhering to the state’s enemies, or giving them aid and comfort. Nevada classifies treason as a category B felony. Those convicted of treason in Nevada face two to ten years in prison as punishment.
Evidentiary Requirements for Treason Cases
The framers of the Constitution laid out stringent evidentiary requirements to ensure convictions for treason are based on clear, irrefutable evidence. To that end, a conviction for treason requires either the “testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act” or a “confession in open court.” In Nevada, these requirements apply at the state level, too.
Testimony of Two Witnesses to the Same Overt Act
An “overt act” is an observable action that demonstrates someone’s participation in treason. It’s not enough for someone to merely hold a belief or speak in favor of an enemy. They must have committed an observable act showing evidence of treason.
The requirement for two witnesses serves as a check against false accusations. It requires corroboration for the alleged treasonous act. This is a uniquely high standard, as most other crimes do not require multiple witnesses for a single act.
Both witnesses must testify to having observed the same specific act of treason. So, two witnesses who observed two different acts wouldn’t suffice.
Confession in Open Court
In lieu of witness testimonies, a clear and unequivocal confession in a formal judicial environment can also serve as the basis for a treason conviction.
An “open court” means a public court proceeding for the sake of transparency. This is to prevent forced or coerced confessions outside of a formal and public legal setting.
Federal Penalties for Treason
The federal penalties for treason are severe in the U.S., reflecting the gravity of the offense. The Constitution delegates the responsibility of punishing treason to Congress. Under the U.S. Code, anyone found guilty of treason could face the following penalties:
- A minimum of five years in prison
- A minimum fine of $10,000
- Prohibition against holding any U.S. office
The framers were wary of the misuse of treason charges, especially given the history of England. There, politicians historically abused allegations of treason to suppress dissent or settle personal scores. So, they inserted specific prohibitions against “corruption of blood” and “forfeiture except during the life of the person attained.” These provisions aimed to ensure fairness and prevent excessive punitive measures in treason cases.
Corruption of Blood
The concept of “corruption of blood” comes from medieval English law. Historically, upon conviction for certain crimes, including treason, a person’s heirs could no longer inherit from them. It was as if the crime itself “corrupted” the bloodline, making descendants of the convicted suffer for ancestral sins.
By prohibiting “corruption of blood,” the Constitution prevents the punishment of descendants of those convicted of treason. This reflects a fundamental belief in individual responsibility and the idea that punishment should only affect the person who commits a crime.
Forfeiture Except During the Life of the Person Attained
In this context, forfeiture refers to the government taking someone’s property as punishment for criminal activity. Historically, in many legal systems, a person convicted of treason could lose all their property to the state, impoverishing their family for generations.
U.S. law limits this punitive measure by stating that any property forfeiture resulting from a treason conviction can only last for the convicted person’s life. After their death, the government must return any seized property or reimburse the person’s heirs or estate for its value.
Famous Treason Cases
The high bar for evidentiary requirements, combined with our nation’s commitment to free speech and political expression, means there have been relatively few treason convictions in the United States. However, there have been numerous notable examples of individuals charged with or closely associated with treasonous activities, such as:
- Aaron Burr: Aaron Burr, who once served as Vice President under Thomas Jefferson, is perhaps the most infamous figure to face treason charges. As part of the so-called “Burr Conspiracy,” he was accused of plotting to create an independent country in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. He was arrested and tried but ultimately acquitted due to insufficient evidence.
- Philip Vigil and John Mitchell: In the aftermath of the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, Philip Vigil and John Mitchell were among the few men convicted of treason. The rebellion arose in western Pennsylvania in response to a federal excise tax on whiskey. Both Virgil and Mitchell participated in attacks against federal officials and tax collectors. They were initially sentenced to hang, but President Washington later pardoned them in the interest of national unity.
- Iva Toguri D’Aquino: Iva Toguri D’Aquino, an American citizen of Japanese descent, was accused of being the infamous “Tokyo Rose.” During World War II, Tokyo Rose was a propagandist who broadcast demoralizing messages to U.S. troops on behalf of the Japanese government. After the war, she was tried and convicted of treason for her alleged role. Later evidence revealed that she had been falsely accused, and President Ford pardoned her in 1977.
Facing Treason Charges? Contact Us Now
Facing charges of treason or another serious offense in Nevada? Trust the experienced team at De Castroverde Criminal & Immigration Lawyers. We’re here to protect your rights and build a strong defense. Contact us now for your confidential case review.