Obstruction of Justice
Obstruction of justice is considered a crime against justice itself. By obstructing justice, one is seeking to thwart the process of justice and the operation of the justice system. From presidents to street criminals, those facing obstruction of justice charges could suffer major consequences. Prosecutions can commence at either the federal or state level.
This article describes obstruction of justice, some examples of obstruction, and the types of penalties one could face.
Obstruction of Justice Under Federal Jurisdiction
Obstruction of justice is defined by federal statute as an act that:
"...corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice."
There are basically three categories of obstructing justice.
1. Interference with judicial processes and court proceedings by:
- Obstructing, resisting, opposing, assaulting , or exposing process servers (18 U.S.C. section 1501) and extradition agents in the execution of their duties (18 U.S.C. section 1502).
- Attempting to influence, threaten, intimidate, or impede a juror, grand jury, court officer, judge, or magistrate (18 U.S.C. section 1503)
- Retaliating against a federal judge or federal law enforcement officer by making false claims against or slandering them (18 U.S.C. section 1521)
- Trying to influence a juror through written communication (18 U.S.C. section 1504) or by picketing or parading outside a courtroom (18 U.S.C. section 1507)
- Recording the deliberations or voting of a jury, or observing or listening in on a jury one is not part of (18 U.S.C. section 1508)
- Stealing, falsifying, or in other ways tampering with the proceedings of any court in the U.S. so that a judgment is reversed, made void, or fails to take effect (18 U.S.C. section 1505), or effects a false release or bail (18 U.S.C. section 1506)
- Tampering with (18 U.S.C. section 1512) or retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant in a trial or legal proceeding (18 U.S.C. section 1513), including killing or attempting to kill in order to prevent evidence from being shared. (To prevent witness tampering, the courts can issue a restraining order [18 U.S.C. section 1514].)
- Using threats or force to prevent, or obstruct, or interfere with the performance of a court order (18 U.S.C. section 1509)
2. Interference with law enforcement and investigation of a crime by:
- Obstructing a pending investigation by Congress, a committee of either House, a federal administrative agency, or a federal department (18 U.S.C. section 1505), or the Armed Forces (18 U.S.C. section 1518)
- Obstructing a criminal investigation by bribery, or for a financial institution officer to notify a customer of the contents of a subpoena (18 U.S.C. section 1510)
- Obstructing pending investigations involving:
- Conspiring to obstruct law enforcement in order to facilitate illegal gambling (18 U.S.C. section 1511)
3. Destruction or concealment of evidence through:
- Falsifying records in federal investigations and in bankruptcy cases (18 U.S.C. section 1519) or destroying corporate audit records (18 U.S.C. section 1520)
- Threats, physical force, or assault
- Tampering with evidence: concealing, destroying, altering, or falsifying documents and written and oral testimony.
- False statements meant to mislead investigators by intentionally omitting relevant information, concealing material facts, creating a false impression, knowingly submitting or inviting reliance on physical evidence that is false, forged, or altered
- Abuse of power to prevent or obstruct compliance by others with an investigator or judicial proceeding
Elements of an Obstruction of Justice Charge
The elements required for a conviction on an obstruction of justice charge differ by code section. For a person to be convicted of obstruction of justice, they must have acted with the specific intent to create an obstruction. The statute criminalizes "endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede" the legal process, even if those endeavors were unsuccessful. Seemingly innocuous acts could become criminal activity if they have the intended effect of impeding justice.
Obstruction of Justice Under State Laws
All states address obstruction of justice in some form. State codes tend to focus more on acts that interfere with the day-to-day work of the police. Some state laws, such as Florida's, define several specific acts, while others are more broadly written.
For example, one section of Florida's obstruction of justice code prohibits the unlawful possession of a concealed handcuff key.
California law makes it a crime to willfully "resist, delay or obstruct" a police officer or emergency personnel while performing their job duties. The statute includes the specific acts of interfering with radio communications over a public safety radio frequency. The law makes it clear that simply photographing or video recording police is not a violation.
Penalties and Sentencing
The federal obstruction of justice code sets different sentences for different parts of the code:
- Threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror is punishable by a fine and up to ten years in prison. But if the crime also involves an attempted murder or the commission of a class A or B felony against a juror, the defendant may be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison.
- Attempting to influence a juror through (non-threatening) written communication is punishable by a fine and up to six months in prison.
State laws usually classify obstruction of justice offenses as felonies, although they differ widely on how they define the crime.
- The Illinois law that prohibits the destruction of evidence classifies it as a Class 4 felony punishable by one to three years in prison.
- The crime of "obstructing a law enforcement officer" in Washington State is a gross misdemeanor and punishable by a fine and up to 364 days in county jail.
Presidential Examples of Obstruction of Justice
In the midst of President Richard Nixon's bid for re-election in 1972, associates of his campaign team broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. They planted listening devices and gathered sensitive information. Nixon denied any involvement in what appeared to be a cover-up attempt but subpoenaed White House recordings proved otherwise. After articles of impeachment were brought to the House floor, which alleged obstruction of justice, among other crimes, Nixon resigned.
Twenty-four years later, President Bill Clinton also faced charges for obstruction of justice and perjury for lying about a sexual encounter he had with a White House intern. Those charges formed the basis of impeachment proceedings. He was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and served the remainder of his term.
The code section made infamous by Presidents Nixon and Clinton "Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees" (18 U.S.C. section 1505), is punishable by a fine and imprisonment of up to five years. Neither president ever faced the possibility of criminal penalties, however.
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