Obstruction of justice
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The crime of obstruction of justice, in United States jurisdictions, refers to the crime of obstructing prosecutors or other (usually government) officials. Common law jurisdictions other than the United States tend to use the wider offense of perverting the course of justice.
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 exercised by any person questioned by police by simply declining to answer 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, although the witness may then exercise their right not to testify under the Fifth Amendment, if they believe their testimony might incriminate them.) 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 for refusal to aid a police officer, escape through voluntary action of an officer, and refusal to assist a prison officer in arresting an escaped convict.
Obstruction can include crimes committed by judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, and elected officials in general. It is misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in the conduct of the office. Most commonly it is prosecuted as a crime for perjury by a non governmental official primarily because of prosecutorial discretion.
- Richard Nixon was being investigated for obstruction of justice for his alleged role in the cover-up of the break-in at the Watergate hotel during his re-election campaign in 1972. Although it is unknown whether Nixon had foreknowledge of his re-election committee's "dirty tricks" campaign against Democratic presidential candidates that led to the break-in, he was aware of it after the fact and paid money to keep the participants quiet. Nixon was disbarred by the New York State Bar Association for obstruction of justice.
- Former Vice-Presidential adviser I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice in March 2007 for his role in the investigation of a leak to reporters that named a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. His prison sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush in July 2007, so that Libby was no longer required to serve a two and a half year prison sentence, but was still required to pay a $250,000 fine, be recorded as a convicted felon, obey probation terms, and be disbarred.
- Former publisher Conrad Black was convicted of obstruction of justice in Canada in July 2007 for removing 13 boxes containing financial records from his office in Toronto after they had been sealed by a court order. He returned the boxes a few days later.
- Athlete Barry Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice on April 13, 2011 for his testimony in front of the grand jury during the BALCO steroid scandal. The conviction was later overturned by an appellate court.
- 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 both of the following:
- The accused knowingly directed the obstructive act to affect an issue or matter within the jurisdiction of any U.S. department or agency.
- The accused acted at least “in relation to” or “in contemplation’” of such issue or matter.
Not on the list, however, is the requirement that prosecutors demonstrate to the finder of fact which specific “pending proceeding” 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 2016-09-13.
- "Nixon disbarred in New York in 1st ruling of Watergate guilt", Toledo Blade, July 9, 1976 p.1
- Siklos, Richard (2007-07-14). "Conrad Black Found Guilty in Fraud Trial". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-08-31.
- Dolan, Maura (April 13, 2011). "Barry Bonds convicted of obstruction of justice in performance-enhancing-drugs case". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
- Mintz, Howard (April 22, 2015). "Barry Bonds conviction overturned". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved June 8, 2017.
- "Behavior of the Defendant in a Competency-to-Stand-Trial Evaluation Becomes an Issue in Sentencing". Journal of the American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved October 10, 2007.
- "FindLaw's United States DC Circuit case and opinions.". Findlaw. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
- See generally T. Markus Funk, "Charges that Sting: 'Honey Laundering' and the New Era of Obstruction Prosecutions," 25 Westlaw Journal - White Collar Crime 6 (March 2011)
- Obstruction of Justice: an Overview of Some of the Federal Statutes that Prohibit Interference with Judicial, Executive, or Legislative Activities, Congressional Research Service, December 27, 2007
- Obstruction of Congress: A Brief Overview of Federal Law Relating to Interference with Congressional Activities, Congressional Research Service, November 5, 2010