Obstruction of Justice

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 What Is Obstruction of Justice? Is Obstruction of Justice a Crime?

An obstruction of justice meaning would be acts that corruptly obstruct or impede “the due administration of justice.” This is also referred to as the due process of the law. Under this definition, the following would be considered an obstruction of justice:

  • Threats to obstruct;
  • Attempts to obstruct; and
  • Actually taking action intended to obstruct.

Obstruction of justice can also apply to the overt coercion of court or government officials, generally through the use of threats. It can also include applying deliberate and overt conduct against a government official for the purpose of undermining the appearance of their otherwise legitimate authority.

To simplify, a person would be committing obstruction of justice when they participate in any activity that would interfere with the investigation and/or prosecution of a crime. It is important to note that there is no singular statute regarding obstruction of justice. Rather, there are several provisions written into many different laws, such as antitrust laws. These are written by congress, as well as state legislatures.

Obstruction of justice is a crime. An obstruction of justice charge can be at either the federal or state levels, depending on what has been interfered with. This is why obstruction of justice is sometimes considered to be a type of white collar crime. Attempted obstruction of justice is also a crime.

For a person to be convicted of obstructing justice, there are two essential elements:

  1. The defendant must have knowledge of an investigation or criminal proceeding; and
  2. The defendant must attempt to influence an investigation or criminal proceeding.

Additionally, there must be specific intent to obstruct the proceeding; and, there must be a connection between the obstruction attempt and the proceeding that the defendant had knowledge of. What this means is that simply failing to assist law enforcement, such as refusing to answer their questions and participate in an investigation, does not immediately constitute an obstruction of justice.

What Are Some Common Examples of Obstruction of Justice?

Before discussing some of the most common examples of obstruction of justice, it is useful to discuss a person’s rights during police questioning before an arrest. Generally speaking, a person is not required to answer any questions that the police are asking them. This applies whether they have been arrested, imprisoned or detained, or simply feel as if they cannot walk away from the officer.

The Fifth Amendment is what protects U.S. citizens from self-incrimination. Meaning, citizens have the right to refuse to answer questions that a police officer asks them. However, there are two notable exceptions to this rule. In some states, a person must provide their name to law enforcement if they request that a person identifies themselves. The other exception would be when a person is pulled over for a traffic violation, and the police ask to see a driver’s license.

Aside from these two exceptions, a person generally would not be arrested or punished for refusing to submit to law enforcement questioning. Because of this, it would not generally be considered an obstruction of justice to refuse to answer any questions without first consulting with an attorney.

In terms of what would constitute obstruction of justice, there are many offenses which could be used as an example. This is partially due to the fact that there is a rather broad definition of the term itself, which includes any interference with the application of the law. Additionally, a person may be found guilty of obstruction of justice even if they had nothing to do with the crime itself. An example of this would be disposing of a weapon that was used to commit a crime. Even if the defendant did not themselves use the weapon to commit a crime, they may be found guilty of obstruction because they disposed of the weapon.

Some other examples of what would constitute obstruction of justice include, but may not be limited to:

  • Knowingly and intentionally lying to law enforcement when being questioned;
  • Intentionally falsifying or destroying any potentially incriminating documents that are being sought after by law enforcement during a criminal investigation;
  • Attempting to influence a jury or witnesses, such as attempting to convince a witness or jury member to make themselves unavailable to testify;
  • Knowingly and intentionally tampering with evidence;
  • Retaliating against a party involved in the criminal case, such as an information; and
  • Resisting lawful arrest.

To reiterate, the right to remain silent allows a person to refuse to answer any questions that are asked of them by law enforcement outside of the two aforementioned exceptions. However, the right to remain silent does not protect them if they answer with an intentional lie. While obstruction of justice does not occur simply because a person does not assist in an investigation, it does occur when the person knowingly and intentionally attempts to mislead the investigation as a whole.

How Serious Is an Obstruction of Justice Charge? What Are the Penalties for Obstruction of Justice?

State laws may categorize an obstruction of justice charge as either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the nature of the obstructive act and the intended effect. An example of this would be how lying about your name to a police officer during a routine traffic stop would generally be considered a misdemeanor crime, while the theft of a document that is involved in a federal court case would generally be considered a felony crime. Whether the crime is categorized as a misdemeanor or a felony can also be determined by the state, as well as the specific court. 

Some states may punish an obstruction of justice charge as a mid level felony, which could carry a penalty of up to eight years served in a federal prison facility. Other states may charge the crime as a gross misdemeanor, which would carry a potential sentence of up to five years served in a county jail. More severe federal obstructions, such as those involving terrorism, will be penalized more harshly. The crime may also be punished by various criminal fines.

Additionally, threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror could be punished by up to ten years in a federal prison facility. If the crime also involves attempted murder, or commissioning a felony crime against a juror, a prison sentence of up to twenty years could be possible.

State laws regarding obstruction of justice generally address the acts that obstruct the daily work of law enforcement, as opposed to the obstruction of justice on a larger scale. Some states define several specific acts as obstruction of justice, while other states maintain more broad definitions of what would constitute the crime.

What Are Some Defenses to Obstruction of Justice?

As previously mentioned, there must be clear intent to obstruct justice in order for there to be an obstruction of justice conviction. To put it simply, there must be an established connection between the act and the result.

What this means is that in order to defend yourself against an obstruction of justice accusation, you must prove that you had no knowledge of the fact that you were obstructing. You did not knowingly or willingly make any false claims, nor intentionally withhold any evidence from investigators. It is important to prove that your failure to assist law enforcement was not an intentional attempt to mislead law enforcement. 

Other defenses include mental impairment, as well as false accusations. It is important to work with an attorney who will be able to determine whether any defenses are available to you based on the specifics of your case.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Obstruction of Justice Charges?

If you are being charged with obstruction of justice, you will need to immediately contact an experienced and local criminal defense attorney. Because the definition of what constitutes obstruction of justice is broad, and can vary from state to state, working with an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area will ensure you receive the most relevant legal advice. 

A criminal defense attorney can review the facts of your case, help you gather evidence to support your claim, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed, while protecting your rights.

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