Obstruction of justice often brings to mind efforts to prevent the government from uncovering crime or other improper conduct. By obstructing justice, the offender seeks to thwart the lawful authority of local, state, or federal officials. These crimes may seek to hamper the legitimate operation of the justice system or a government office. From elected officials to street criminals, those convicted of obstruction of justice charges may face major consequences. Prosecutions can begin at the federal or state level.
This article describes obstruction of justice. It gives examples of obstruction crimes and discusses the possible penalties.
Obstruction of Justice Under Federal Jurisdiction
Obstruction of justice refers to an act that, according to federal law:
"... 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 many types of obstruction covered in federal statutes. Obstruction crimes fall into three basic categories under federal law.
Interference with the justice process and federal 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, judge, magistrate, or other officers of the court (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 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 you are not serving (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, 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 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, obstruct, or interfere with the performance of a court order (18 U.S.C. section 1509)
Interference with law enforcement and investigation of a crime by:
Obstructing pending investigations involving:
Destroying or concealing evidence through:
- Falsifying records in federal investigations and 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, and 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 conviction of a charge of obstruction of justice differ by code section. To get convicted of the crime of obstruction, you must act with the specific intent to prevent a government official from doing their job. The statute criminalizes "endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede" the legal process. Such endeavors do not have to be successful for an obstruction crime to go forward. Seemingly innocuous acts could become criminal activity if they impede justice.
Obstruction of Justice Under State Laws
All states address obstruction of justice in some form. In obstruction cases, the offender often takes some affirmative action. This act then causes interference with law enforcement or other government officials. Many state codes 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 written more broadly. For example, one section of Florida's obstruction of justice crimes prohibits the unlawful possession of a concealed handcuff key.
California provides several specific statutory crimes that deal with interference with law enforcement. California law also prohibits willful acts to "resist, delay, or obstruct" a police officer or emergency responder while performing their duties. This catch-all statute includes acts of interfering with public safety radio communications. Yet, the law states that photographing or videotaping the police when a person is in a location that they have the right to be is not a proper basis for an obstruction charge. Such recording of a police encounter does not provide reasonable suspicion to detain or probable cause to arrest.
Ohio provides two comprehensive statutes in the area of obstruction of justice crimes. In the crime of obstructing justice, Ohio makes it illegal to engage in several behaviors when the offender aims to hinder the discovery, apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of another for a crime. These include acts to:
- Harbor or conceal the other person
- Provide the other person with money, transportation, a weapon, a disguise, or other means to avoid discovery or arrest
- Warn the other person of an impending discovery or arrest
- Destroy or conceal physical evidence of the crime
- Induce another to withhold testimony or to avoid legal process
- Communicate false information to any person
- Prevent or obstruct any person by force, threat, or deception from performing any act to aid in the discovery, arrest, or prosecution of the other person
An obstructing justice case will be a felony if the crime that the person assisted was a felony. It would be a misdemeanor if the crime the person assisted were a misdemeanor. In some instances, a felony obstructing justice charge will be a higher felony degree. This may occur if the crime assisted was murder, terrorism, trafficking in persons, or another high-level felony offense.
Ohio's other obstructing statute deals with obstructing the work of police and other government officials. The crime of obstructing official business provides that no person: Without the privilege to do so and with the purpose to prevent, obstruct, or delay the performance of a public official of an authorized act within their capacity shall do any act that hampers or impedes the public official in the performance of the public official's lawful duties.
Obstructing official business is a misdemeanor offense. The state may enhance the charge to a felony if the offender's conduct creates a risk of physical harm to any person.
Penalties and Sentencing
The federal obstruction of justice crimes vary in their elements and punishment. For example:
- Threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror is punishable by a fine and up to ten years in prison. If the crime also involves an attempted murder or the commission of a class A or B felony against a juror, the penalties increase. The defendant may face a fine and up to twenty years in prison.
- Attempting to influence a juror by a 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. Yet, they may also differ in defining the crime and issuing penalties. For example:
- The Illinois law that prohibits the destruction of evidence classifies it as a Class 4 felony. An offender may serve a prison sentence of one to three years.
- In Washington state, "obstructing a law enforcement officer" is a gross misdemeanor. An offender can face a fine of up to $5,000 and jail time of up to 364 days.
Presidential Examples of Obstruction of Justice
You often hear the phrase, "No one is above the law." History shows that even presidents have run into trouble over claims that they engaged in obstruction of justice.
Amid 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. Subpoenaed White House recordings proved otherwise. Articles of impeachment came to the House floor, which alleged obstruction of justice, among other crimes. As a result, Nixon resigned.
President Bill Clinton also faced charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. The investigation focused on claims he lied about a sexual encounter with a White House intern. Those charges led to impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. After the trial, the Senate issued an acquittal. He served the rest of his term.
The federal obstruction charge involved in these cases was 18 U.S.C. section 1505. If convicted, the punishment can include a fine and imprisonment of up to five years. Neither president ever faced criminal penalties.
President Donald Trump is the first president to face federal criminal charges. Federal indictments remain pending in federal courts in Florida and Washington, D.C. The Florida case involves charges of retaining classified documents at his Florida estate. It includes accounts of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The indictment alleges that Trump took acts to withhold classified documents from the federal government. The D.C. case relates to Trump's role in attempting to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. The indictment includes charges of conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. The proceeding was the certification of Biden's victory in Congress.
The federal grand juries issued the current indictments after Trump had left office. Trump also faces state felony charges in New York and Georgia in separate cases. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Learn More About Obstruction of Justice Charges From a Criminal Defense Lawyer
The crime of obstruction of justice should put people on guard. When someone you know gets caught up in criminal offenses, any action you take to assist them may result in questions from the police. Likewise, efforts to avoid compliance with a law you don't like can bring legal trouble. If you face charges of obstruction of justice at the federal or state level, consider getting legal representation. Talk with a criminal defense attorney near you.