Theft of Debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia: Criminal Penalties

CRS Report for Congress
Theft of Debris from the Space Shuttle
Columbia: Criminal Penalties
Andrew W. Murnane
Law Clerk
American Law Division
The breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia strewed debris over parts of the West
and the South, and recovery of this debris was considered vital to the investigation into
the Columbia’s final moments of flight. Almost immediately after the breakup,
however, press stories reported that members of the public were recovering pieces of
Columbia’s wreckage and converting them to their personal use. Even though the
organized search for Columbia debris is winding down, prosecutions continue for
stealing debris and new ones could possibly arise in the future. This report briefly
describes possible criminal penalties for conversion of government property, and does
not address issues related to the personal property of the Columbia’s crew. This report12
will be updated as warranted.
On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost during its reentry into
Earth’s atmosphere. All seven astronauts aboard the Columbia, six Americans and one
Israeli, died. A large scale investigation into the cause of the Shuttle’s destruction quickly
ensued, with an urgent focus on locating, cataloging, and collecting debris from the
Columbia.3 Still, the press almost immediately began reporting alleged instances of the
public converting pieces of the Columbia debris to their personal use.

1 This report was prepared under the general supervision of Larry Eig, Legislative Attorney.
2 Also see CRS Report RS21408, NASA’s Space Shuttle Columbia: Quick Facts and Issues for
3 The Space Shuttle’s Orbital Experiment Support System recorder (“Black Box”) was discovered
near Hemphill, Texas, on March 19, 2003. As of March 21, 2003, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) reported that roughly 51,600 pounds of Columbia debris had been
recovered. This figure represents approximately 23% of the Space Shuttle’s weight. Workers
will reassemble the pieces of the Columbia at Kennedy Space Center.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress

Since the Columbia disaster, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration
(NASA) has had this statement on its website: “All debris is United States Government
property and is critical to the investigation of the shuttle accident. Any and all debris from
the accident is to be left alone and reported to Government authorities. Unauthorized
persons found in possession of accident debris will be prosecuted to the full extent of the
law.”4 The organized search for debris, which stretched from San Francisco, California
to Lafayette, Louisiana, is winding down. Still, several individuals have been arrested for
stealing debris, prosecutions continue, and others may yet arise.
Title 18 U.S.C. § 641 provides in part that “Whoever embezzles, steals, purloins or
knowingly converts to his use or the use of another, or without authority, sells, conveys
or disposes of any thing of value of the United States or of any agency thereof, or any
property made under contract for the United States or any department or agency thereof;
shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; but if the
value of such property does not exceed the sum of $1,000, he shall be fined under this title
or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.” Title 18 U.S.C. § 3571 authorizes fines
for felonies of not more than $250,000 and fines for misdemeanors of the type in § 641
of not more than $100,000.
The Supreme Court has held that criminal intent is a necessary element for a
conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 641, even though the statute does not provide a specific
level of intent for conviction of a crime within its scope, other than “knowingly converts.”
Morrissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952). Consequently, anyone acting with
criminal intent, to “embezzle, steal, purloin, or knowingly convert to his use or the use of
another” property of the United States in the form of debris from the Space Shuttle
Columbia could thus be convicted of a criminal offense under 18 U.S.C. § 641, and fined
according to the scheme at 18 U.S.C. § 3571. For example, there are recent newspaper
reports of persons allegedly offering Columbia debris for sale on the world wide web5
auction site eBay. If the alleged seller intentionally stole or knowingly converted the
debris to his use, or without authority sold or conveyed debris, those actions could fall
within the liability established by the statute, and so could result in fines and
imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. §§ 641, 3571.
Section 641 of title18 also provides that “whoever receives, conceals, or retains the
same with intent to convert it to his use or gain, knowing it to have been embezzled,
stolen, purloined or converted” shall be fined “under this title or imprisoned not more than
ten years, or both; but if the value of such property does not exceed the sum of $ 1,000,
he shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.” Thus,
anyone who knowingly receives debris of the Columbia from someone else for personal
use or gain could also be vulnerable to substantial criminal penalties.

4 []
5 Cynthia L. Webb, Filter: Must Read Technology News and Views, Searching for Answers,
Washington Post, February 3, 2003, at C14. If such items purporting to be Columbia debris are
not in fact actual debris of the Columbia, the person offering it for sale is potentially liable for
fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1343 — Fraud by wire, radio, or television.

Federal prosecutors announced a general amnesty for anyone who turned in debris
from the Columbia, until 5 PM on Friday, February 7, 2003.6 Nevertheless, as of June
12, 2003, at least six individuals reportedly have been indicted in Texas and Florida on
charges that they stole Columbia debris.7 One of these individuals is a former sheriff’s
deputy, and another is a Kennedy Space Center employee. An elected constable charged
with stealing debris was acquitted by a federal court jury on June 6, 2003.

6 John M. Broder, NASA Now Doubts Tank Foam Debris Doomed Columbia, N.Y. Times,
February 6, 2003, at A1.
7 The Assoc. Press, Fifth Texas Resident Indicted on Charge of Taking Shuttle Debris, May 7,