The Crime of "Destroying or Concealing Evidence"
California Penal Code 135 PC

If you find yourself caught up in a police investigation, or are facing criminal charges, or are involved in even the relatively minor hassle of a civil lawsuit...you'll probably try to do everything you can to protect your legal rights and help your case.

But when it comes to written material or physical evidence that might be relevant to the case, you'll want to be extremely careful. California law, Penal Code 135 PC, makes it a crime to destroy or conceal evidence that you know is relevant to a court case or legal investigation.1

Penal Code 135 PC doesn't only affect people who are already involved with the criminal justice system. You can commit an obstruction of justice crime even if you destroy evidence that is only relevant to a non-criminal court proceeding...like a divorce case or litigation over a contract dispute.2

In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys3 explain Penal Code 135 PC, California's law against destroying evidence and concealing evidence, by addressing the following:

1. The California crime of destroying evidence (Penal Code 135 PC)

1.1. Willfully and knowingly destroying or
concealing evidence

1.2. Any type of evidence

1.3. Successfully destroying or concealing evidence

1.4. During a legal proceeding or investigation

2. Legal defenses against charges of
destroying evidence
3. Penalties for destroying evidence
4. Related offenses

4.1. Offering false written evidence (Penal Code 132 PC)

4.2. Preparing false evidence (Penal Code 134 PC)

4.3. Planting evidence (Penal Code 141 PC)

4.4. Perjury

If you would like more information after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. The California crime of destroying evidence (Penal Code 135 PC)

1.1. Willfully and knowingly destroying or concealing evidence

Penal Code 135 PC makes it a crime to destroy or conceal any piece of evidence that's going to be used in a trial or government investigation of any kind...but only if two conditions are met.

First, you have to know that the evidence is going to be used as evidence.4 If you own a small business and throw away some old accounting records, and a year later the government decides to investigate your business for tax fraud, you're not going to get in trouble for having destroyed the records...because you probably didn't know that they were going to be relevant to an investigation.

Second, you have to have destroyed or concealed the evidence "willfully."5 This means that you need to have actually intended to do it.6

Example: Joanne gets in a severe car accident that injures the driver of another car, and that driver sues her. Joanne took some photos at the scene of the accident that will be relevant to the litigation. But late one night, while she is looking over her files related to the accident, she accidentally spills coffee on the photo prints and their negatives, ruining them.

Joanne is probably not guilty of the California crime of destroying evidence because she did not willfully destroy the photos.

1.2. Any type of evidence

You can violate Penal Code 135 PC by destroying or concealing pretty much any kind of evidence--including digital images and video recordings.7 It doesn't need to be a legal document or some other item that's obviously legally important.

Examples of evidence that it's illegal to destroy under Penal Code 135 PC include:

  • Drugs and drug paraphernalia,8
  • Clothes that someone wore while committing a crime,9 and
  • A weapon used to commit a violent crime.10

1.3. Successfully destroying or concealing evidence

With most California crimes, you can be punished for attempting to commit a crime...even if you don't actually succeed in carrying it out. But with the California crime of destroying evidence, you need to have successfully destroyed or concealed evidence...at least to some extent... to be convicted.

In other words, you probably won't be convicted for the attempted crime of concealing evidence. Here is an example that shows what this means:

Example: Tom uses fake traveler's checks to buy large amounts of merchandise in a mall. A suspicious salesperson calls a mall security guard, who follows Tom as he's leaving the mall.

Tom can see that he is being followed. He gets to his car, tears up the fake traveler's checks that he is still carrying, and throws them out the car window. The mall security guard sees Tom throw something out the window and finds the torn fake traveler's checks. Eventually the torn checks are used as evidence against Tom when he is charged with check fraud.

Tom can NOT be convicted of concealing evidence for ripping and throwing the checks. The guard saw him throw the checks and was able to retrieve them ...so Tom didn't actually succeed in destroying or concealing the traveler's checks.11

BUT, according to Pasadena criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse12:

"It's not true that you can escape Penal Code 135 PC charges just because someone eventually finds the evidence you tried to conceal. If you manage to hide evidence just long enough to make a police investigation longer or more difficult, then you can be convicted, even if they do eventually find the evidence."


Example: Orlando robs a jewelry store and makes off with thousands of dollars in expensive jewelry. When he learns he is a suspect in the robbery, he buries the jewelry in his neighbor's backyard. The police come to search Orlando's house but find nothing. The next week, Orlando has an attack of conscience and goes to the police to turn himself in. He tells them where the jewelry is hidden.

Orlando IS guilty of destroying or concealing evidence...because he did succeed in throwing the police off track and delaying his own arrest by a week.13

1.4. During a legal proceeding or investigation

To violate Penal Code 135 PC, you need to destroy or conceal evidence that is the subject of a legal proceeding,14 such as:

  • A criminal trial,
  • A parole board hearing or a parole violation hearing,
  • A civil trial (like a family law or tort case),
  • A police investigation of illegal activity taking place in a jail or prison,15 or
  • A criminal investigation that hasn't yet resulted in any arrests.

If you destroy or hide something at a time when no legal investigation or trial is in process...and later it turns out that the thing you destroyed or hid could be evidence in an investigation or trial that began later...then you are not guilty under Penal Code 135 PC.

Example: Randy commits a murder and then immediately burns the clothes he was wearing when he did it. At the time when he burns the clothes, no one even knows that the victim has been killed. Randy may be guilty of murder, but he is not guilty of destroying evidence...because when he burned the clothes, there was no investigation ongoing yet.16

BUT, the minute anything that looks like a legal investigation begins, it becomes a crime to destroy evidence...as shown by this example.

Example: While conducting a routine search at a county jail, a guard finds marijuana hidden in a shoe box. Jack, an inmate at the jail, immediately grabs the marijuana from the guard, runs to a toilet, and flushes it away. Jack is guilty of destroying evidence...because once the guard found the marijuana, it could be assumed that a criminal investigation was going to begin.17
Img-toilet-evidence
2. Legal defenses against charges of destroying or concealing evidence

As some of the examples we discussed above show, there are numerous legal defenses that you can use to help fight charges that you violated Penal Code 135 by destroying or concealing evidence.

For example, you can't be convicted unless you knew that you were destroying evidence that was likely to be produced in a legal proceeding.18 So you may be able to use the common legal defense of mistake of fact...basically, to argue that you mistakenly believed that the things you were destroying were not relevant to any legal proceeding.

A skilled California criminal defense attorney can help determine which defenses would be most helpful in your particular case.

3. Penalties for destroying evidence

The California crime of destroying or concealing evidence is a misdemeanor.19 The maximum penalty is up to six (6) months in county jail, a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or both.20

4. Related offenses

California law makes it a crime to interfere with trials or legal investigations in a number of ways other than destroying evidence. These other obstruction of
justice include:

4.1. Offering false written evidence (Penal Code 132 PC)

Penal Code 132 PC makes it a crime to present fake, forged, or incorrectly dated written evidence in any kind of legal trial or proceeding.21

The crime of offering false evidence is a felony and can result in a maximum sentence of sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years in California state prison.22

4.2. Preparing false evidence (Penal Code 134 PC)

Penal Code 134 PC makes it a crime to prepare any false evidence with the intention of presenting it in some sort of legal proceeding...even if it never actually gets used for that purpose.23 And unlike the crime of offering false evidence, which applies only to written evidence, the crime of preparing false evidence extends to all kinds of evidence...like photographs and urine samples.24

The crime of preparing false evidence is a felony and, in the worst case, can result in a maximum prison sentence of sixteen (16) months, two (2) years, or three (3) years.25

4.3. Planting evidence (Penal Code 141 PC)

The crime of planting evidence (California Penal Code 141) occurs when a person moves or alters evidence so that someone else will be wrongly charged with a crime, or so that the false evidence will wrongly being presented as true in a legal proceeding.26 Police officers sometimes plant evidence on unsuspecting people in order to make an arrest.27

Planting evidence is a misdemeanor for most defendants. The maximum penalty is up to six (6) months in county jail, a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or both.28

However, if a law enforcement officer plants or fabricates evidence, the offense is a  felony, and the maximum penalty is two (2), three (3) or five (5) years in state prison.29

4.4. Perjury (Penal Code 118)

If you are charged with destroying evidence, you could also be charged with Calfornia perjury law (Penal Code 118 PC). You commit perjury when you willfully say something false when testifying in court or in a lawsuit-related deposition, or in a sworn legal document.30

So, for example, if you conceal or destroy evidence and then testify in court that the evidence never existed or you don't know where it is, you could be charged both with destroying evidence and with perjury (for lying about it under oath). Perjury is a felony and can lead to a sentence of two (2), three (3) or four (4) years in jail.31

Call us for help...
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If you or loved one is charged with Penal Code 135 PC destroying or concealing evidence and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

You may also find helpful information in our related articles on Attempted Crimes in California Criminal Law Penal Code sections 21a and 664 PC; California's Murder Law Penal Code 187(a) PC; Common Legal Defenses to California Crimes; Mistake of Law / Mistake of Fact; Legal Definition of a Misdemeanor in California Law; Legal Definition of a Felony in California Law; The Crimes of Offering False Evidence and Preparing False Evidence Penal Code sections 132 and 134 PC; The California Crime of Planting Evidence Penal Code 141 PC; and California Perjury Laws Penal Code 118 PC; and watch our video on Penal Code 135 - Destroying or Concealing Evidence

If you've been arrested in Nevada, please see our page on Nevada law re destroying evidence.

Legal References:

1 Penal Code 135 PC - Destroying or concealing documentary evidence. ("Every person who, knowing that any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, digital image, video recording owned by another, or other matter or thing, is about to be produced in evidence upon any trial, inquiry, or investigation whatever, authorized by law, willfully destroys, erases, or conceals the same, with intent thereby to prevent it or its content from being produced, is guilty of a misdemeanor.")

2 Same.

3 Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.  We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, and several nearby cities.

4 Penal Code 135 PC - Destroying evidence. ("Every person who, knowing that any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, is about to be produced in evidence upon any trial, inquiry, or investigation whatever, authorized by law, willfully destroys or conceals the same, with intent thereby to prevent it from being produced, is guilty of a misdemeanor.") (emphasis added)

5 Same.

6 Penal Code 7 PC - Words and phrases. ("1. The word "willfully," when applied to the intent with which an act is done or omitted, implies simply a purpose or willingness to commit the act, or make the omission referred to. It does not require any intent to violate law, or to injure another, or to acquire any advantage.")

7 People v. Fields, (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d 341, 345. ("We therefore construe the phrase, 'other matter or thing' [in California's destroying evidence law] to encompass an unending variety of physical objects such as the green leafy material and handrolled cigarettes in the case at bench.")

8 Same.

9 See People v. Prysock, (1982) 127 Cal.App.3d 972, 980.

10 People v. Lee, (1970) 3 Cal.App.3d 514, 526. ("A defendant in a criminal case may not permanently sequester physical evidence such as a weapon or other article used in the perpetration of a crime . . . .")

11 Based on the facts and reasoning of People v. Hill, (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 1078.

12 Pasadena criminal defense attorney Neil Shouse is the Managing Attorney of Shouse Law Group. He is a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney, where he had a 96% success rate in felony jury trials.

13 People v. Hill, (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 1078, 1090. ("For example, a thief eludes the police and buries his booty in a neighbor's backyard. Police arrive and search him and his property but find nothing. The next day, a neighbor leads them to freshly tilled earth in his yard, and they dig up the stolen property. Has the thief violated the statute or merely attempted to do so? Given the ordinary meaning of 'conceal,' the purpose of the statute, and its applicability to any investigation, the thief has, in our view, violated the statute: his conduct successfully hid stolen property [concealed evidence] from view during the first search of him and his property and thereby impeded, frustrated, and prolonged an investigation of the theft.")

14 Penal Code 135 PC - Destroying evidence. ("Every person who, knowing that any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, is about to be produced in evidence upon any trial, inquiry, or investigation whatever, authorized by law, willfully destroys or conceals the same, with intent thereby to prevent it from being produced, is guilty of a misdemeanor.") (emphasis added)

15 People v. Fields, (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d 341, 345. ("Appellant next contends that the language 'about to be produced in evidence upon any trial, inquiry, or investigation whatever' limits Penal Code section 135 to cases where formal legal proceedings are pending; he argues that this language does not encompass a police or law enforcement investigation. Appellant relies on other statutes dealing with the same general topic as Penal Code section 135 (statutes in pari materia). Again, appellant's interpretation is contrary to the fair import of the [destroying evidence] statute; it ignores the words 'or investigation whatever'. The seizure and examination of the marijuana by Deputy Ray was an authorized police investigation of possible criminal activity in the jail. It must be presumed that once the deputy had satisfied himself as to the nature of the articles seized, he would have reported the incident to his superiors and the articles would have been sequestered for possible use in a future criminal prosecution of the jail inmates.")

16 Based on People v. Prysock, (1982) 127 Cal.App.3d 972, 1001. ("The statute requires that the actor know that the object [the destroyed evidence] is about to be produced in evidence. We conclude that whatever the statute's exact meaning, the evidence herein falls short because the prosecution failed to show that any law enforcement investigation in fact had started and/or that law enforcement was or would be looking for the particular item. Unless this or a similar limiting interpretation is given, the statute would appear virtually open ended, at least in all but 'victimless' crimes.")

17 Based on People v. Fields, (1980) 105 Cal.App.3d 341, 345. ("The seizure and examination of the marijuana by Deputy Ray was an authorized police investigation of possible criminal activity in the jail. It must be presumed that once the deputy had satisfied himself as to the nature of the articles seized, he would have reported the incident to his superiors and the articles would have been sequestered for possible use in a future criminal prosecution of the jail inmates.")

18 Penal Code 135 PC - Destroying evidence. ("Every person who, knowing that any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, is about to be produced in evidence upon any trial, inquiry, or investigation whatever, authorized by law, willfully destroys or conceals the same, with intent thereby to prevent it from being produced, is guilty of a misdemeanor.") (emphasis added).

19 Same.

20 Penal Code 19 PC - Punishment for misdemeanor; punishment not otherwise prescribed. ("Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.")

21 Penal Code 132 PC - Offering forged, altered, or ante-dated book, document, or record. ("Every person who upon any trial, proceeding, inquiry, or investigation whatever, authorized or permitted by law, offers in evidence, as genuine or true, any book, paper, document, record, or other instrument in writing, knowing the same to have been forged or fraudulently altered or ante-dated, is guilty of felony.")

22 Same.

See also Penal Code 18 PC - Punishment for felony not otherwise prescribed; alternate sentence to county jail. ("(a) Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a felony is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months, or two or three years in the state prison unless the offense is punishable pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170.")

23 Penal Code 134 PC - Preparing false evidence. ("Every person guilty of preparing any false or ante-dated book, paper, record, instrument in writing, or other matter or thing, with intent to produce it, or allow it to be produced for any fraudulent or deceitful purpose, as genuine or true, upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, authorized by law, is guilty of felony.")

24 People v. Bamberg, (2009) 175 Cal.App.4th 618, 628; People v. Morrison, (2011) 191 Cal.App.4th 1551, 1555.

25 Penal Code 134 PC - Preparing false evidence. See also Penal Code 18 PC - Punishment for felony not otherwise prescribed; alternate sentence to county jail.

26 Penal Code 141 PC - Peace officers; intentional alteration of physical matter with intent to charge person with a crime; felony. ("(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), any person who knowingly, willfully, and intentionally alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves any physical matter, with specific intent that the action will result in a person being charged with a crime or with the specific intent that the physical matter will be wrongfully produced as genuine or true upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, is guilty of a misdemeanor.")

27 See "FBI to review video alleged to show police planting drugs," El Paso Times, July 31, 2012.

28 Penal Code 141 PC - Peace officers; intentional alteration of physical matter with intent to charge person with a crime; felony. ("(a) Except as provided in subdivision (b), any person who knowingly, willfully, and intentionally alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves any physical matter, with specific intent that the action will result in a person being charged with a crime or with the specific intent that the physical matter will be wrongfully produced as genuine or true upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, is guilty of a misdemeanor.")

29 Same. ("(b) Any peace officer who knowingly, willfully, and intentionally alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves any physical matter, with specific intent that the action will result in a person being charged with a crime or with the specific intent that the physical matter will be wrongfully produced as genuine or true upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, is guilty of a felony punishable by two, three, or five years in the state prison.")

30 Penal Code 118 PC - Perjury defined; evidence necessary to support conviction. ("(a) Every person who, having taken an oath that he or she will testify, declare, depose, or certify truly before any competent tribunal, officer, or person, in any of the cases in which the oath may by law of the State of California be administered, willfully and contrary to the oath, states as true any material matter which he or she knows to be false, and every person who testifies, declares, deposes, or certifies under penalty of perjury in any of the cases in which the testimony, declarations, depositions, or certification is permitted by law of the State of California under penalty of perjury and willfully states as true any material matter which he or she knows to be false, is guilty of perjury. This subdivision is applicable whether the statement, or the testimony, declaration, deposition, or certification is made or subscribed within or without the State of California.")

31 Penal Code 126 PC - Punishment. ("Perjury is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for two, three or four years.")

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