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Obstruction Instructions Don't Require 'Wicked' and 'Evil'

By William Peacock, Esq. on June 05, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Gabriel Watters had a slick car heist scheme. He allegedly went to New Orleans, post-Katrina, and towed a number of abandoned cars back home for resale. Clever, immoral, and obviously illegal, right?

Except, he was found not guilty ... at least of the Katrina heist offenses.

During the period between the indictment and trial, the FBI contacted Watters' cousin Starr, with whom he lived for six weeks. Starr got the impression that he was supposed to spy-and-snitch, and that is what he did. At trial, he testified that Watters told him that he was going to produce a fake receipt for the cars.

Watters did exactly that, producing a forged receipt from a salvage yard. Shortly thereafter, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and making a false statement.

He now appeals, arguing that the lower court gave an improper definition of "corruptly" as it appears in 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c), which penalizes one who "corruptly ... obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so."

The district court defined "corruptly" as "acting with 'consciousness of wrongdoing.'"

Watters prefers "acting with an evil or wicked purpose," which is language pulled from Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States. However that case interpreted the neighboring statutory provision, 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b).

His argument fails twice. First of all, that's not the holding of Arthur Andersen. Section 1512(b) punishes "knowingly ... corruptingly persuad[ing]," which the court in Arthur Andersen defined as "consciousness of wrongdoing."

That's the same standard applied in the present case by the lower court. That standard is actually higher that what was necessary, as § 1512(c) lacks the "knowing" requirement. If there was a mistake, Watters actually benefitted from it - and reversal is not required.

As for "wicked" and "evil", those terms appear in Arthur Andersen and United States v. Ryan as mere dicta discussion of dictionary definitions. Besides, in Ryan, the court was addressing a completely different statute altogether - § 1503.

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