Obstruction of Justice
In the midst of President Richard Nixon's bid for re-election in 1972, associates of his campaign team broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. in order to plant listening devices and gather sensitive information. Nixon denied any involvement in what appeared to be a cover-up attempt, but subpoenaed White House recordings proved otherwise. After articles of impeachment were brought to the House floor -- alleging obstruction of justice, among other crimes -- Nixon resigned.
Twenty-four years later, President Bill Clinton also faced an obstruction of justice charge and one charge of perjury for lying about a sexual encounter he had with a White House intern (to which he would later admit). These charges formed the basis of President Clinton's impeachment, although he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and served the remainder of his term.
The crime of obstruction of justice is considered a crime against justice itself, since it undermines the validity of the legal system. While the actions of Presidents Nixon and Clinton invoked the federal obstruction of justice statute, states also have similar laws. Below is a summary of the crime.
Obstructing Justice Under Federal Jurisdiction
Obstruction of justice is defined by federal statute as any "interference with the orderly administration of law and justice" and governed by 18 U.S.C. §§ 1501-1521. Federal code identifies more than 20 specific types of obstruction, including "Obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees" (18 U.S.C. § 1505), the specific code section cited in the Nixon and Clinton articles of impeachment.
Other ways an individual may commit this offense include, but are not limited to, the following acts:
- Influencing or injuring an officer or juror generally (18 U.S.C. § 1503)
- Obstruction of criminal investigations (18 U.S.C. § 1510)
- Tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant (18 U.S.C. § 1512)
- Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant (18 U.S.C. § 1513)
- Destruction of corporate audit records (18 U.S.C. § 1520)
The crime can take any number of forms, whether it's bribery, tampering with evidence, lying to investigators, abusing one's power, or some other act intended to impede a criminal investigation. The federal obstruction of justice statute is written broadly and focuses more on the effect (or intended effect) of a particular action rather than the specific act itself. Therefore, seemingly innocuous acts could be construed as criminal activity if they have the intended effect of impeding justice.
Elements of an Obstruction of Justice Charge
The elements required for a conviction on an obstruction of justice charge differ slightly by code section. For instance, prosecutors must prove the following elements for a conviction under section 1503 of the federal statute (influencing or injuring an officer or juror):
- There was a pending federal judicial proceeding;
- The defendant knew of the proceeding; and
- The defendant had corrupt intent to interfere with or attempted to interfere with the proceeding.
But regardless of the specific section of federal law (1501 through 1521) cited in a particular case, the prosecution need not prove any actual obstruction -- the defendant's attempt to obstruct is enough. The element of intent, which is central to such cases, is also usually the most difficult to prove; although memos, phone calls, and recorded conversations may be used as evidence to establish this.
Obstruction of Justice at the State Level
State codes also address the crime of obstruction of justice, but tend to focus more on acts that interfere with the day-to-day work of police. For example, one section of Florida's obstruction of justice code prohibits the unlawful possession of a concealed handcuff key. Similarly, California law makes it a crime to willfully "resist, delay or obstruct" a police officer or emergency personnel while performing their job duties. The statute includes the specific acts of interfering with radio communications over a public safety radio frequency and taking an officer's firearm.
All states address obstruction of justice in some form. Some state laws, such as Florida's, define several specific acts, while others are much more broadly written. When comparing state and federal laws, it's important to understand that there's a wide range of offenses that fall into the category of "obstruction of justice." Here's a selection of state laws:
- Illinois - Chapter 720 § 5/31-4. Obstructing justice
- Texas - Penal Code Title 8, Chapter 38. Obstructing Governmental Operation
- Washington - Criminal Code § 9A.76.020. Obstructing a law enforcement officer
Penalties and Sentencing
Federal obstruction of justice law sets different sentences for different code sections. For example, the code section made infamous by Presidents Nixon and Clinton (18 U.S.C. § 1505) is punishable by a fine and imprisonment of up to five years (or up to eight years if it involves terrorism). Threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror (18 U.S.C. § 1503) is punishable by a fine and up to 10 years in prison. But if the crime also involves an attempted murder, or the commission of a class A or B felony against a juror, the defendant may be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Attempting to influence a juror through written communication (18 U.S.C. § 1504), however, is punishable by a fine and/or up to six months in prison.
State laws also classify most obstruction of justice offenses as felonies, although they differ widely on how they define the crime. The Illinois law cited above -- prohibiting such acts as "destroying evidence" -- classifies the crime as a Class 4 felony (punishable by one to three years in prison). The crime of "obstructing a law enforcement officer" in Washington State, on the other hand, is a gross misdemeanor and punishable by a fine and up to 364 days in county jail.
Get a Free Legal Evaluation of Your Criminal Case
Just as federal and state prosecutors are required to provide criminal defendants with due process of the law, defendants and others involved in criminal investigations are strictly prohibited from interfering with the wheels of justice. If you have been charged with a federal or state crime against justice, you will want legal representation. Get started today with a free legal case evaluation by a criminal defense attorney near you.