The United States Constitution defines "treason" as either levying war against the United States or aiding and sympathizing with the nation's enemies. The Constitution granted to Congress the exclusive power to determine the punishment for treason. Since the late 1700s, only several statutes address treason, and the federal government has convicted very few people on treason counts. Today, only the federal government can dictate the procedures following a treason accusation; an accusation alone is insufficient to establish a conviction.
If mere accusations are not supported by evidence, the federal government cannot prosecute. Before any federal criminal procedures can take place, first a federal agency must present evidence supporting the allegation before the local Office of the U.S. Attorney. If the evidence supports the accusation, the U.S. Assistant Attorney can recommend that the presiding judge review the evidence and issue an arrest warrant. Alternatively, the Assistant Attorney can present the evidence before a grand jury and the grand jury will decide whether enough evidence supports a charge and possible conviction of treason.
Formal Treason Charge
If you are arrested and charged with treason, you will likely be detained until your trial. At trial, a jury of twelve will hear the case, review the evidence and determine whether the evidence supports a guilty or non-guilty treason conviction. You can be convicted of treason if you confess to the crime or two witnesses testify against you. If found guilty, you can appeal the decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the circuit where you were convicted.
Punishment for Treason Conviction
The Constitution gives Congress the power to set the punishments for treason. If you are convicted of treason, you can receive the death penalty; if the death penalty is not given, the federal government can imprison you for no less than five years and issue a fine of no less than $10,000. You are also prohibited from holding any governmental office. However, even if you are convicted of treason and sentenced, you may be pardoned. In 1949, Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, known as "Tokyo Rose," was convicted and sentenced to 10 years, but was pardoned after serving only six. Thus, even though Congress has a punishment for treason on the books, you may not serve your entire sentence.
The federal government has not convicted a person of treason since 1952. Federal prosecutors have often used sedition, espionage and sabotage charges in lieu of treason, but people convicted of these crimes are often informally accused of treason. For example, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were charged, convicted and executed for espionage conspiracy, not treason. The federal government seldom charges people with treason because it is difficult to decipher what constitutes modern-day treason and whether someone is sympathizing with an enemy of the United States. Other laws, like the Espionage Act, often define related crimes in a more concrete manner that better relates to today's climate and technology.
- Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute: 18 U.S. Code § 2381 - Treason
- Organization of American States: Guide to Criminal Procedures in the United States
- New York Times: Treason Against the United States
- CBS News: The Case for Treason
- SF Gate: Few Ever Charged or Convicted of Treason in U.S. History / Many Americans Fought for Other Religious, Political, Cultural Beliefs
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: The Atom Spy Case
- Constitution Daily: Treason Charges for Snowden Would Be Rare, Challenging
- Photo Credit Vladstudioraw/iStock/Getty Images
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