Biological Weapons

18 U.S. Code § 175 - Biological Weapons 

Title 18 U.S. Code 175 is the federal law that has prohibitions concerning biological weapons, which are considered extremely dangerous. The legal consequences of involvement with biological weapons can be severe.

Federal laws strictly prohibit anyone from engaging with prohibited biological weapons in any manner, including helping others to obtain them. Convictions will carry harsh penalties. 

18 U.S. Code § 175 - Biological Weapons Laws

Federal criminal cases involving biological weapons are uncommon and complex, and many defense lawyers are not adequately qualified to represent those accused of offenses involving these severe weapons.

18 U.S. Code 175 defines the type of prohibited conduct related to biological weapons, such as knowingly developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining, or possessing any biological toxin, agent, or delivery system for a biological weapon is unlawful.

It's also a federal offense to knowingly assist a foreign state or any organization in obtaining, developing, or otherwise interacting with a biological weapon. Also, conspiring, threatening, or attempting to get involved with a biological weapon or to help a foreign entity could result in federal charges.  

When somebody within the United States has possession of a pathogen with the intent to harm others, the federal government considers it a serious situation and will react accordingly. Biological weapons, including viruses, bacteria, and other toxins, are hazardous. A conviction for violating this law can result in a prison term of any number of years, up to life imprisonment.

What Does the Law Say?

18 U.S. Code 175 Prohibitions with respect to biological weapons say, “Whoever knowingly develops, produces, stockpiles, transfers, acquires, retains, or possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system for use as a weapon, or knowingly assists a foreign state, or attempts, threatens, or conspires, shall be fined, or imprisoned for life or any term of years, or both. There is extraterritorial Federal jurisdiction over an offense under this law committed by or against a national of the United States.”

Section 175(b) says, “Whoever knowingly possesses any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system of a type or quantity reasonably justified by bona fide research will be fined and imprisoned for up to 10 years.”

Section 175(c) says, “The term “for use as a weapon” includes development, production, transfer, acquisition, retention, or possession of any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system for other than bona fide research purposes.”

Section 175a says, “The Attorney General may request the Secretary of Defense to aid under section 382 of title 10 in support of Department of Justice activities relating to the enforcement of section 175 in an emergency involving a biological weapon of mass destruction.” 

Extraterritorial Jurisdiction

The federal government asserts "extraterritorial jurisdiction" related to biological weapons, which means the following:

  • The government could file charges against a U.S. national with biological weapons offenses anywhere in the world, even if the offense was not committed within United States borders.
  • The government could charge a person or organization with biological weapons offenses if they are committed against a U.S. national.

What Type of Conduct is Prohibited?

As noted, 18 U.S.C. 175 prohibits possessing or using biological agents or toxins for a weapon.  A "biological agent" is any microorganism, virus, infectious substance, or natural product used to kill or injure people. A "toxin" is a poisonous substance produced by a living organism. 

Federal laws make it a crime for someone to do any of the following acts below:

  • Developing, producing, stockpiling, transferring, acquiring, retaining, or possessing any biological agent, toxin, or delivery system for use as a weapon or attempting or threatening to do so.
  • Knowingly helping or assisting any foreign government or organization in the abovementioned actions.
  • Knowingly possessing biological agents or toxins in any quantity other than reasonable for peaceful purposes such as research, treatment of disease, etc.

What Are the Related Federal Laws?

18 U.S. Code Chapter 10 has several federal laws that are related to 18 U.S.C 175 prohibitions concerning biological weapons, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C. 175a – Requests for military assistance to enforce prohibition in specific emergencies.
  • 18 U.S.C. 175b – Possession by restricted persons restricts shipping or transporting biological toxins or agents in interstate commerce.
  • 18 U.S.C. 175c – Prohibits receiving, transporting, possessing, importing, exporting, or using the Variola virus.
  • 18 U.S.C. 176 – Establishes the law on seizure, forfeiture, and destruction of biological agents, toxins, and delivery systems.
  • 18 U.S.C. 177 – Establishes the circumstances when the United States government can seek an injunction.
  • 18 U.S.C. 178 – Defines the keywords applicable to determine if you have violated any laws related to biological weapons.

What are the Penalties for 18 U.S.C. 175? 

Suppose you are convicted of violating the federal biological weapons laws; in that case, you are facing harsh penalties, such as the following: 

  • The maximum sentence is ten years in prison if you are convicted of possessing a biological agent, toxin, or delivery system in an unacceptable amount, such as more than is reasonable for bona fide peaceful purposes.
  • The maximum penalty is life in federal prison if you are convicted of developing, producing, stockpiling, acquiring, or retaining a biological agent, toxin, or delivery system.  

There is extraterritorial jurisdiction if somebody commits this federal offense, a U.S. national outside of the country, or if they commit it against a U.S. national. 
The federal judge could consider mitigating circumstances to lessen your punishment. 

What Are Legal Defenses? 

Federal prosecutors are likely to have sufficient evidence to convict you by the time they file 18 U.S.C. 175 biological weapons charges. Still, a federal criminal defense lawyer can use strategies to exonerate you or lessen the penalties.

Maybe we can argue you did not knowingly participate in the development or production of biological agents or toxins for weapons purposes. Perhaps you worked with biological agents but were unaware of their ultimate purpose.

Maybe we can argue you were acting with peaceful purposes. Perhaps we can prove you were utilizing biological agents for legitimate research and only in reasonable quantities. 

We represent clients throughout the United States on federal matters. Contact us for a free case consultation and to discuss legal options. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, California. 

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