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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.

Contents

Legal overviewEdit

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.[1] 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.

Obstruction can include crimes committed by judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, and elected officials in general.

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.[2][3] 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).[4]

Notable examplesEdit

Obstruction trendsEdit

"Anticipatory obstruction of justice" has recently appeared on the horizon in cases such as US v. Wolff.[22] 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.[23]

See alsoEdit

FootnotesEdit

  1. ^ "18 U.S. Code § 1519 - Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved September 13, 2016.
  2. ^ Guidelines Manual (PDF). United States Sentencing Commission. 2018. pp. 359–361. Retrieved June 14, 2019.
  3. ^ Flumenbaum, Martin; Karp, Brad S. (May 30, 2014). "Perjured Statements as a Basis for Sentencing Enhancement" (PDF). New York Law Review. 251 (103). Retrieved June 14, 2019.
  4. ^ Foster, Michael A. (August 24, 2018). Judicial Fact-Finding and Criminal Sentencing: Current Practice and Potential Change (Report). Congressional Research Service. Retrieved June 14, 2019.
  5. ^ Schmidt, Michael S.; Savage, Charlie (April 18, 2019). "Mueller Rejects View That Presidents Can't Obstruct Justice". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 3, 2019.
  6. ^ "House Judiciary Committee Unveils Investigation into Threats Against the Rule of Law". Committee on the Judiciary - Democrats. March 4, 2019. Retrieved June 16, 2019.
  7. ^ Marcus, Ruth (December 20, 1998). "Explanation of Article III". Washington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  8. ^ Lyons, Richard; Chapman, William (July 28, 1974). "Judiciary Committee approves article to impeach President Nixon, 27 to 11". Washington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  9. ^ "'For the purpose of deceiving the people'". Wall Street Journal. November 13, 1998. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  10. ^ Holson, Laura M. (September 8, 2018). "'No One Could Believe It': When Ford Pardoned Nixon Four Decades Ago". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  11. ^ "Highlights from Libby indictment". CNN. October 28, 2005. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  12. ^ Lewis, Neil A. (March 7, 2007). "Libby guilty of lying in C.I.A. leak case". The New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  13. ^ Baker, Peter (April 13, 2018). "Trump Pardons Scooter Libby in a Case That Mirrors His Own". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  14. ^ Miller, Judith (April 14, 2018). "Belated justice for Scooter Libby". Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  15. ^ Siklos, Richard (July 14, 2007). "Conrad Black Found Guilty in Fraud Trial". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 31, 2016.
  16. ^ "Trump pardons billionaire friend Conrad Black, who wrote a book about him". The Washington Post. May 15, 2019. Retrieved June 11, 2019.
  17. ^ "Barry Bonds convicted of obstruction of justice in performance-enhancing-drugs case". Los Angeles Times. April 13, 2011. Retrieved May 22, 2018.
  18. ^ Egelko, Bob (April 23, 2015). "Appeals court overturns Barry Bonds' obstruction conviction". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  19. ^ Seigel, Michael L.; Slobogin, Christopher (Spring 2005). "Prosecuting Martha: Federal Prosecutorial Powerand the Need for a Law of Counts" (PDF). Penn State Law Review. 109 (4): 1116–1118. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  20. ^ Johnston, David (December 24, 1992). "Bush pardons 6 in Iran affair, aborting a Weinberger trial; prosecutor assails 'cover-up'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2019.
  21. ^ "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.
  22. ^ "FindLaw's United States DC Circuit case and opinions". Findlaw. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
  23. ^ Funk, T. Markus (March 2011). "Charges that Sting: 'Honey Laundering' and the New Era of Obstruction Prosecutions" (PDF). Westlaw Journal - White Collar Crime. 25: 6.

External linksEdit