Obstruction of Justice

Federal law penalizes the obstruction of justice. Because it involves intent to conceal criminal activity, courts have frequently referred to obstruction of justice as a crime of moral turpitude. Obstruction of justice crimes are more accurately described as a series of offenses than as a single crime, most of which are grouped into Chapter 73 of Title 18 of the United States Code, under the title “Obstruction of Justice.” The bulk of the prohibited activity centers on administrative, judicial, or legislative proceedings and investigations. The statutes are intended to protect (1) the processes themselves and (2) the people involved in the protected processes, such as jurors, victims, officials, and judges. Thus, criminal penalties apply to threatening to injure a juror or judge, just as they do to interfering with an investigation, hearing, or trial.

Some Notable Ways in which a Person May Commit Obstruction of Justice

Obstruction of justice is covered in a variety of federal statutes, with a number of charges being outlined in the following subsections of 18 U.S. Code Chapter 73:

  • Obstructing a criminal investigation (§ 1510)
  • Influencing or injuring an officer, grand juror, juror, or judge (§1503)
  • Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees (§1505)
  • Tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant (§ 1512)
  • Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant (§ 1513)
  • Destruction of corporate audit records (§ 1520)
  • Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy proceedings (§ 1519)
  • Retaliating against a judge or federal officer by false claim or slander of title (§1521).

Essentially, aside from good faith participation, observation, and commentary, all kinds of acts to interfere with or to influence a protected process constitute obstruction of justice.

For instance, in addition to violent conduct, non-violent acts such as paying witness or officers of the court, including attorneys, prosecutors, and judges, to influence an outcome qualify as obstruction of justice. As another example, in an investigation of a business enterprise by the EPA, SEC, or IRS, efforts of executives to hide evidence, falsify records, or influence the substance of an employee’s testimony would result in convictions for obstruction of justice if proved to a finder of fact at trial.

Less well-known obstruction of justice offenses include (perhaps surprisingly on first impression):

  • Injuring a process server;
  • Obstruction of court orders;
  • Picketing in front of a federal courthouse; and
  • Lying to investigators.

Elements of an Obstruction of Justice Charge

Generally, to convict a person of obstruction of justice, federal prosecutors must prove the following elements:

  1. A proceeding or investigation (a “protected process”) was underway (or was foreseeable);
  2. The defendant knew of the pending protected process (or its likelihood);
  3. The defendant intended to interfere with the protected process; and
  4. The defendant attempted a prohibited interference.

Intent is often the most significant element at issue and can be difficult to prove. Significantly, a person need not successfully interfere with a protected process to be subject to prosecution. Generally, any attempt is enough to support a conviction.

The Penalties for Obstruction of Justice

Potential penalties for obstruction of justice vary depending on which provision of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1501-1521 applies.

Some examples include:

  • A fine and/or up to six months in federal prison (18 U.S.C. § 1504.);
  • A fine and/or up to eight years in federal prison (18 U.S.C. § 1505);
  • A fine and/or up to twenty years in federal prison (18 U.S.C. § 1503).

Prosecution for obstruction of justice can have a profoundly negative impact on one’s career and future employment possibilities as they often result in felony convictions. Further, according to many actors in the justice system and society at large, most of the acts supporting obstruction charges evidence a lack of personal moral integrity.

Contact An Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Obstruction of justice is a serious offense and federal prosecutors pursue these charges vigorously. If you or someone you care about has been charged with obstruction of justice, you should consult with an attorney who has experience defending federal criminal charges. Further, if you are accused of obstructing justice in the context of an investigation into the acts of your employer, you should seek representation separate from your company’s counsel.

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