Obstruction of justice
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Obstruction of justice, in United States jurisdictions, is a process crime consisting of obstructing prosecutors, investigators, or other government officials. Common law jurisdictions other than the United States tend to use the wider offense of perverting the course of justice.
Obstruction is a broad crime that may include acts such as perjury, making false statements to officials, witness tampering, jury tampering, destruction of evidence, and many others. Obstruction also applies to overt coercion of court or government officials via the means of threats or actual physical harm, and also applying to deliberate sedition against a court official to undermine the appearance of legitimate authority.
Generally, obstruction charges are laid when it is discovered that a person questioned in an investigation, other than a suspect, has lied to the investigating officers. However, in most common law jurisdictions, the right to remain silent can be used to allow any person questioned by police merely to deny answering questions posed by an investigator without giving any reason for doing so. (In such a case, the investigators may subpoena the witness to give testimony under oath in court, though the witness may then exercise their rights, for example in the Fifth Amendment, if they believe their answer may serve to incriminate themselves.) If the person willfully and knowingly tried to protect a suspect (such as by providing a false alibi) or to hide from investigation of their own activities (such as to hide their involvement in another crime), this may leave them liable to prosecution. Obstruction charges can also be laid if a person alters, destroys, or conceals physical evidence. Obstruction charges may also be laid in unique situations such as refusal to aid a police officer, escape through voluntary action of an officer and refusing to assist prison officers in arresting escaped convicts.
Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a convicted defendant is subject to a more severe sentence if they are found to have obstructed justice by impeding the investigation or prosecution of their crimes. While a separate conviction for the crime of obstruction would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a finding of obstruction for sentencing purposes only needs to meet the looser standard of "a preponderance of the evidence" (unless the enhanced sentence would exceed the statutory maximum sentence for the underlying crime).
- Donald Trump was investigated for obstruction of justice as part of the 2017–2019 Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential elections. Due to Department of Justice policy and constitutional concerns, investigators determined they lacked authority to conclude whether Trump committed a crime; however, they also found insufficient evidence to exonerate him. Attorney General William Barr concluded the report contained insufficient evidence of an obstruction offense. The House Judiciary Committee began a separate investigation into alleged obstructive conduct in March 2019.
- The impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 included allegations that Clinton obstructed justice by trying to influence the testimony of witnesses, including Monica Lewinsky, in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by Paula Jones, and by encouraging Lewinsky to conceal evidence. Clinton was acquitted of all charges by the Senate.
- The impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in 1974 included charges of obstruction of justice for impeding the investigation of the Watergate burglary. Nixon's acts of obstruction, as alleged by the House Judiciary Committee, included lying to investigators and withholding evidence, influencing witnesses (including through payments of hush money), and making false statements to the public about the investigation. Nixon resigned before impeachment could be considered by the full House of Representatives, and he was preemptively pardoned by Gerald Ford before any criminal investigation could occur.
- Scooter Libby, advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, was charged with obstruction of justice in 2007 for allegedly lying to a grand jury investigating the Plame affair about conversations that he had with reporters about Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent. Libby was convicted of obstruction and related crimes, but his 30-month prison sentence was commuted by George W. Bush, and he was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2018 after a key witness recanted her testimony.
- Conrad Black was convicted of obstruction of justice in July 2007 for removing 13 boxes containing financial records from his office in Toronto after they had been sealed by a court order, returning the boxes a few days later. Black was pardoned by Donald Trump in May 2019.
- Barry Bonds was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to a grand jury investigating the BALCO steroid scandal about whether his personal trainer had given him steroids. Bonds was convicted and served 30 days of house arrest, but the conviction was later overturned on appeal.
- Martha Stewart was convicted of obstruction of justice in 2004 for lying to investigators in the ImClone stock trading case about the reasons for a stock sale that was being investigated as potential insider trading.
- In the wake of the Iran–Contra affair, several members of the Reagan Administration were charged with obstruction of justice for alleged actions including lying to the Congressional committees investigating the matter and concealing evidence.
- In United States v. Binion, malingering (feigning illness) during a competency evaluation was held to be obstruction of justice and led to an enhanced sentence.
"Anticipatory obstruction of justice" has recently appeared on the horizon in cases such as US v. Wolff. However, the operative section, 1519, passed in 2002, has thus far languished in quasi-obscurity. Titled “Destruction, Alteration or Falsification of Records in Federal Investigations and Bankruptcy,” the provision was passed under Section 802 of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002.
The text of the statute is relatively straightforward:
Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsified, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under Title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
Aside from Section 1519's 20-year maximum prison sentence (no small benefit to the government in big-dollar fraud loss cases such as Wolff), its primary appeal is that it uniquely removes certain key proof burdens from prosecutors’ collective shoulders.
Prosecutors charging violations of Section 1519 must still establish either of the following:
- The accused knowingly did the obstructive act with the intent to affect the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any U.S. department or agency or any case filed under Title 11; or
- The accused knowingly did the obstructive act at least “in relation to or in contemplation of any such matter or case”.
Not on the list, however, is the requirement that prosecutors demonstrate to the finder of fact which specific “matter or case” the accused attempted to obstruct. That is a significant benefit to the government.
- "18 U.S. Code § 1519 - Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
- Guidelines Manual (PDF). United States Sentencing Commission. 2018. pp. 359–361. Retrieved June 14, 2019.
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- Obstruction of Justice: an Overview of Some of the Federal Statutes that Prohibit Interference with Judicial, Executive, or Legislative Activities, Congressional Research Service, April 17, 2014.
- Obstruction of Congress: A Brief Overview of Federal Law Relating to Interference with Congressional Activities, Congressional Research Service, November 5, 2010.