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What Is Treason?

Treason seems like a crime best left in the annals of history. We think of figures like Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr, but treason is a crime that remains in our lawbooks for a reason. Keep reading to learn why.

More Unique Than You Think

Out of all the crimes and criminal procedures in the Constitution, treason is the only one that is explicitly defined. This may be because of the historical context of the Constitution – the Revolutionary War – but it could also be because treason is a direct threat to the nation.

The Framers of the Constitution maintained that all citizens owe a debt of loyalty to the country and any threat levied against the government is a crime of the highest order. Now, treason carries a different tone as the United States has faced terrorism and threats from every side.

Treason Defined

The Constitution defines treason as levying war against the United States and/or aiding enemies of the state. Most often, accusations of treason take place during wartime – someone offers safety and information to an enemy or threatens the country on their behalf to gain ground.

However, treason cases aren’t always that simple. In the case of Aaron Burr, all charges against him were dropped because he did not actually ‘levy war’ against the government. Instead, he conspired to do so. This case reigned in the definition of treason and ensured that future cases would not succeed without ample evidence of a treasonous act.

During the Cramer v. United States case, Cramer was accused of helping German soldiers infiltrate the country during World War II. The court reviewed Cramer’s case and determined that to be guilty of treason, one must aid and comfort the enemy in addition to furthering their intentions.

In simpler terms, someone must not only house or facilitate the enemy, but they must also further their mission and adhere to their cause through words and actions.

These two rulings helped to narrowly define treason so that any impassioned or emotional accusations of treasonous acts can’t stand without hard evidence.

Overt Acts

To prove treason, the prosecution must provide sufficient evidence of overt acts by the accused. This can be through at least two witness testimonies, correspondence, or other means. The goal for the prosecution is to show the court that the accused went out of their way to commit an overt act.

Overt acts can be a threatening post online or selling weapons to groups at odds with the government. Intent isn’t enough – there must be action.

Other Crimes Associated with Treason

In most cases, treason is related to a series of other crimes or misconduct, including:

  • Insurrection or Rebellion: inciting, engaging, or assisting an act of clear resistance against authority
  • Sedition: conspiring to overthrow the government by force
  • Espionage: obtaining classified information on behalf of a foreign nation
  • Misprision of Treason: knowing someone who has committed or conspired to commit treason and not reporting it to the authorities
  • Terrorism: the act of using violence or violent rhetoric to target, destroy, or attach the government
  • Conspiracy to Levy War: planning on inciting war or assisting an enemy in starting a war against the United States

Key Takeaway

There aren’t many treason trials these days, but recent events have brought the word back into the American lexicon. Attacks at the capital, tragedies in major cities, and violent incidents have shown us that treason and violence aren’t a thing of the past. The key to any treason case is evidence – without evidence, there is no case.

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