“Obstruction of Justice” has become the buzz word of the day, particularly in light of speculation about what’s to come of the infamous Mueller Report and the debate over potential criminal charges against President Donald Trump. Though that conversation is a highly fact-specific matter, it revolves around what many people think they know about obstructing justice – a criminal offense that can be highly complex, and very broad.
To understand what it all means, a careful examination is needed. To understand what it means in any particular case, an even closer exploration of unique circumstances is required.
What is Obstruction of Justice?
Obstructing justice, as it sounds, has to do with knowingly interfering in the administration of justice. Known as a “process crime,” it’s a criminal offense against the judicial process itself, similar to crimes of false and misleading statements, contempt, perjury, and failure to appear.
In the U.S., obstruction of justice is defined by both state and federal law. In Ohio, a state law prohibiting “obstruction of official business” (related to hampering law enforcement of other officials) is a second-degree misdemeanor. Under Title 18 U.S.C § 1503, federal law defines “obstruction of justice” as:
- Any act which, corruptly or by the threat of force / threatening communication, impedes, influences, obstructs, or aims to impede, influence, or obstruct the due administration of justice.
There are different kinds of obstruction of justice covered by different federal statutes. For example, 18 U.S.C. § 1503 applies only to federal judicial proceedings. Another statute – 18 U.S.C. § 1505, pertains to obstructing justice in a pending proceeding (such as an informal investigation) before Congress or a federal agency.
What constitutes obstruction, particularly under 18 U.S.C. 1503, can be very broad, and when and how charges are levied depends on the facts of the situation at hand.
Examples of Obstruction of Justice
Obstruction of justice encompasses a broad range of prohibited acts, as well as a number of specific charges under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, including:
- Obstruction of court orders (§ 1509) or criminal investigations (§ 1510);
- Obstruction of state and local law enforcement (§ 1511);
- Obstruction of a federal agency, department, or committee proceedings (§ 1505);
- Witness, victim, or informant tampering / retaliation(§§ 1512, 1513);
- Influencing or injuring an officer or juror (§§ 1503, 1504) or surveilling jury deliberation or voting (§ 1508);
- Obstructing a criminal health care investigation (§ 1518), financial institution examination (§ 1517), or federal audit (§ 1516);
- Altering, destroying, or falsifying records (§ 1519);
- Resisting an extradition agent (§ 1502) or assaulting a process server (§ 1501);
- Conspiracy to defraud the U.S. (§ 371) and contempt;
The specific types of acts by which justice is obstructed can range from case to case, and the type of obstruction alleged. Some obstruction charges and laws which supplement or mirror them, such as false statements or perjury, prohibit obstruction by means of lies and deception. Others relate to obstruction by the corruption of officials or public employees (bribery or mail or wire fraud), the use of violence or threatened violence, the destruction of evidence, and alerting targets of investigations.
Some obstruction of justice examples include:
- Threatening or using physical force against a witness in a criminal investigation for the purpose of delaying or preventing court testimony or the communication of information to law enforcement;
- Altering or destroying evidence to evade a subpoena, hamper a criminal investigation, or influence a similar court process;
- Threatened force or use of force against law enforcement or court officials, including judges or prosecutors;
- Misleading conduct, which is broadly defined as deliberately lying, making material omissions (leaving out facts crucial to a case), submitted false or misleading physical evidence, and other schemes committed with the intent to mislead;
- Tipping off a target of a federal criminal investigation about the investigation or other court proceedings, such as a grand jury inquiry.
When Obstruction of Justice Occurs
- With or without pending proceeding – Though obstruction charges often arise from attempts to influence active cases, the offense has no requirement for there to be any official proceeding or court case pending in order for a person to be charged with a crime. This was highlighted in the case of Martha Stewart, who was convicted of obstructing justice for conduct which occurred very early in an investigation into insider trading.
- With or without charges – As a process crime, obstruction of justice can form the basis for what’s known as “pretextual prosecution,” where the government targets defendants for one offense but prosecutes them for another. That means it can occur even if a person has not been charged with a crime, and is often used in situations where the prosecution has difficulty charging a person for an underlying suspected offense, such as charging Al Capone for tax evasion, rather than his other purported crimes. This concept is also a large part of the conversation related to President Donald Trump, who, although not charged with an offense for which his administration was being investigated, engaged in conduct which arguably constituted obstruction.
- Innocence – There’s no requirement for a person to be proven guilty of another crime in order to be charged with or convicted of obstruction. A person can obstruct justice even if they are innocent of an underlying allegation against them. Should an investigation yield no evidence a person committed a particular offense, that person can still be charged with obstruction.
- No involvement in a case – A person may also be charged with obstruction even if they have nothing to do with a case whatsoever. A family member who threatens witnesses or co-conspirators implicated in a case involving their loved one, for example, can be charged with the offense. A person who discloses the existence of a criminal investigation, or grand jury inquiry, to the target of the investigation, for the purpose of hindering it, may also be charged with obstruction.
Obstruction of justice can be easier for prosecutors to prove than other federal crimes, both because it does not typically present statute of limitations problems, and because it can arise in investigations of crimes that are more difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. Many obstruction-related charges are ancillary to other major investigations.
That’s not to say obstruction is “low-hanging fruit” for prosecutors. It’s become a suitable charge which carries legitimacy for punishment, and significant penalties upon conviction.
Obstruction of Justice Penalties
Federal obstruction of justice is a serious crime, and it puts substantial prison time on the table. Penalties and sentencing can also vary depending on the circumstances in which the alleged obstruction occurred. For example:
- Obstruction of justice is generally punishable by substantial fines, loss of certain civil rights, and sentences in federal prison that can range from a few years to decades.
- Obstruction of justice prosecuted under § 1503 is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, and obstruction under § 1505 is punishable by up to 5 years (or 8 if it relates to terrorism). Other obstruction charges, such as those involving violence or attempted murder of a federal official, can pose longer terms of imprisonment, in some cases up to 20 years.
- The role a person plays in a case (i.e. a principal offender, accessory, or accomplice after the fact) can influence sentencing.
- When alleged obstruction occurred can also have an impact on the validity of charges and any resulting penalties. That’s particularly relevant for charges related to obstruction in pending proceedings or active criminal investigations.
- If an obstruction occurs in connection to a federal criminal trial, a convicted defendant may be sentenced to either an additional 5-year sentence for obstruction, or the maximum sentence which could be imposed for the underlying charges in the trial, whichever is greater. For a drug trafficking case with a maximum 20-year sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines, the obstruction could result in a defendant receiving a 20-year sentence for obstruction of justice. If they were also a defendant in the case, that means they could be looking at a 40-year sentence.
Facing Federal Charges in Ohio? Call Proven Defense Attorneys.
The severe penalties which accompany federal obstruction of justice charges should make any person implicated in a federal investigation or charged with a federal crime cognizant of their conduct and actions, and aware that what they say and do can have major implications – even if what they say is misinterpreted or wrongly perceived by prosecutors. It’s also a reminder about the importance of seeking experienced legal representation as soon as possible, especially in federal cases involving complex charges like obstruction.
Ultimately, federal law enforcement has the ability to charge you with any crime. However, it’s their burden to prove allegations (and in this case intent) beyond a reasonable doubt, and your right to defend yourself in a court of law. If you or someone you know has been charged with obstruction, or would like to take the appropriate steps toward protecting your rights, freedom, and future while minimizing risks for potential process crime charges like obstruction during a federal criminal case, we encourage you to speak with our award-winning criminal defense attorneys at Friedman & Nemecek, L.L.C. Attorneys at Law.
Call (888) 694-4645 or contact us online to speak with a lawyer. Our firm serves clients throughout Cleveland, the state of Ohio, and beyond, and offers free and confidential consultations.