In legal terms, obstruction of justice refers to acts that corruptly obstruct or impede “the due administration of justice,” or the due process of the law. This definition includes threats to obstruct, as well as attempts to obstruct, in addition to actually taking actions to obstruct.
Additionally, obstruction also applies to overt coercion of court or government officials through the use of threats. It can also include attempts to obstruct, actual actions of obstruction, or applying deliberate overt conduct against a court official to undermine the appearance of their legitimate authority.
Obstruction of justice is a crime which can be either federal or state, depending on the type of proceeding that has been interfered with. In fact, it is sometimes considered to be a type of white collar crime.
In order to be convicted of obstructing justice, the defendant must have knowledge of an investigation or criminal proceeding, and attempt to influence it. Further, there must be specific intent to obstruct the proceeding, and there must be a connection between the obstruction endeavor and the proceeding that the defendant had knowledge of. Thus, simply failing to assist law enforcement does not instantly translate to an obstruction of justice.
Because of the very broad definition, which includes any interference with the application of the law, there are many offenses which could be considered obstruction of justice. Additionally, you can be found guilty of obstruction even if you had nothing to do with the crime. For example, disposing of a weapon used to commit a crime, even if you did not use the weapon to commit the crime, might would make you guilty of obstruction of justice.
Additional examples of obstruction of justice include:
- Knowingly and intentionally lying to police during questioning;
- Knowingly falsifying or destroying potentially incriminating documents sought out by the police during an investigation;
- Attempting to influence a jury or witness, such as attempting to convince a jury member or witness to unavailable to testify;
- Knowingly tampering with evidence;
- Retaliating against someone involved in the case, such as a witness, victim, or informant; or
- Resisting arrest.
The right to remain silent allows an individual to refuse to answer questions asked of them by the police. However, it does not protect an individual if they answer with a lie. As previously mentioned, obstruction does not occur simply because an individual fails to assist in an investigation; rather, obstruction occurs when an individual attempts to mislead the investigation altogether.
The range of penalties for obstruction of justice vary, depending on if the crime was committed at the federal or state level. Additionally, the penalty will vary based on the severity of the offense. Penalties for obstruction can range from simple fines to a jail sentence, which is typically for five years. The more severe federal obstructions involving terrorism carry a potential eight year jail time sentence.
Further, threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror can result in up to ten years in prison, and if the crime also involves attempted murder or commissioning a felony against a juror, a prison sentence of up to twenty years could be possible.
State laws tend to address the acts that obstruct the daily work of the police, rather than the obstruction of justice on a larger scale. Some states define several specific acts as obstruction of justice, while others contain more broad descriptions.
Obstruction of justice can be a felony or a misdemeanor. The specific category obstruction falls into is determined by the state, the court, and the specific offense committed. For example, lying about your name to a police officer during a routine traffic stop would typically be considered a misdemeanor, whereas the theft of a document involved in a federal court case would be considered a felony.
As previously mentioned, there needs to be clear intent to obstruct in order for there to be a conviction. In short, there must be an established connection between the act and the result.
Thus, in order to defend yourself against an obstruction accusation, you will need to prove that you did not knowingly or willingly make any false claims, or intentionally withhold any evidence. It is important to demonstrate that your failure to assist law enforcement was not an attempt to mislead law enforcement. Other defenses include mental impairment as well as false accusations.
Obstruction of justice is a serious offense that could carry a range of severe penalties, such as jail time and fines. A knowledgeable and qualified criminal defense attorney will be essential in proving that you did not possess a specific intent to obstruct, which is imperative in proving your innocence. An experienced attorney will also inform you of your rights, any potential defenses available to your specific case, and what your options may be.