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 How to Avoid Obstruction of Justice 

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Michael Santos

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“This article was last updated on January 10, 2022”

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INTRODUCTION

Given the constant headlines about obstruction of justice charges, it is more important than ever to understand what it means to be charged with obstruction of justice and how to avoid obstruction of justice charges and penalties.

There is truth to the adage that “sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.” Indeed, in several recent PPP loan fraud cases where people who decided to talk to investigators without legal counsel ended up facing charges for obstruction of justice in addition to PPP loan fraud charges.

DISCUSSION

People who intentionally interfere with government investigations or court proceedings by witness tampering, making false statements, or destroying evidence are commonly charged with obstruction of justice. The most common forms of obstruction of justice are witness tampering, perjury, and destroying evidence during the course of a government case.

Obstruction of justice is a criminal offense under both federal and state law for which thousands of people go to prison every year

Obstruction happens because people involved in criminal and civil investigations often try to take matters into their own hands, thinking they can influence the outcome for the better. We recently heard of someone accused of a $4 million federal wire fraud attempting to set up meetings with two potential witnesses in the case. Any such interactions are fraught with potential exposure to obstruction charges.

What people under risk of criminal investigation or indictment fail to realize is how quickly seemingly innocent conduct can cross the line into allegations of obstruction of justice. 

It’s a very slippery slope.

Here is a simple example of obstruction of justice that led to a higher sentence for the defendant. 

In a 2008 federal bank robbery conviction, the defendant received a sentence enhancement because he obstructed justice. 

How did he obstruct justice? 

Telling his girlfriend, a potential witness, “I hope and pray to God you didn’t say anything about a weapon,” he crossed the line. What he may have thought was a mere statement of hope to a loved one was, in fact, criminal conduct. 

Being under indictment or charged with obstruction of justice means that a person took intentional steps to hamper or interfere with a government investigation or prosecution

From a law enforcement standpoint, federal obstruction of justice charges deter others from engaging in this conduct and protect the integrity of the criminal justice process. A person can be guilty of obstruction by interfering with any stage of the criminal justice process, including the law enforcement investigations to prosecution and sentencing. 

What is law enforcement obstruction? 

Law enforcement obstruction of justice is another way of stating that it is a crime for someone to engage in any acts to interfere with law enforcement and the administration of justice.

To avoid obstruction charges, people need to become more familiar with the most common charges prosecutors file for obstruction of justice – from witness tampering and retaliation to destroying or hiding evidence. 

Pro-Tip: Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works with criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively manage their exposure to the criminal justice system. In our experience, the more well-informed and proactive clients are, the better their likely outcomes. Remember to consult criminal defense counsel for legal advice regarding any court case.

DEFINITION OF OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

Obstruction of justice is a crime that includes perjury, making false statements to officials, witness tampering, jury tampering, destruction of evidence, and other similar acts to subvert law enforcement and the administration of justice.

People often ask about the obstruction of justice elements that prosecutors have to prove to win their case, discussed further below. In most obstruction cases, the most critical of all obstruction of justice elements is that the defendant intended to obstruct a criminal investigation or prosecution.

It is illegal to offer bribes to delay or prevent people from relaying information to law enforcement about a crime. Sometimes the situation is less than apparent, and the facts of the case will determine what prosecutors must show. In some scenarios, even a person telling the target of an investigation that they received a subpoena for records relating to the target can amount to obstruction. 

NOTABLE OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE CASES

Some significant obstruction of justice cases came at the height of the investigations into the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in professional sports. Dozens of witnesses testified before congressional committees and grand juries and gave statements to law enforcement investigators. 

That is precisely the type of environment where people often give in to the temptation to lie, obfuscate, or attempt to coordinate their testimony with others to hide the facts from law enforcement. In fact, most of the criminal charges stemming from the PEDs investigations included obstruction of justice charges.

For example, gold-medal Olympic sprinter Marion Jones pled guilty to obstruction of justice in 2008, including one count of making false statements to federal agents about her use of PEDS. Her sentence was six months. 

Baseball star Barry Bonds endured years of investigations into his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The government brought numerous charges against Bond, including obstruction of justice for giving an evasive answer to a grand jury in 2003. Ultimately, an appeals court overturned Bonds’ obstruction of justice conviction, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) dropped the case in 2015. 

In the financial services industry, the charges against Martha Stewart and Frank Quattrone are noteworthy.

In 2004, a jury found Martha Stewart guilty of obstructing justice during an insider trading investigation. Specifically, Stewart tried to hamper the investigation into her stock sale by providing misleading information and attempting to tamper with her broker’s phone message. Stewart also lied to the Securities and Exchange Commission, the FBI, and federal prosecutors by claiming she had prearranged with her broker to sell her stock. 

Stewart received a sentence of 10 months for lying and obstruction of justice. Stewart’s stockbroker was also guilty of making false statements, obstruction, perjury, and conspiracy. The DOJ never convicted Stewart for insider trading or securities fraud. 

In another noteworthy case in 2004, investment banker Frank Quattrone received an 18-month sentence for obstruction of justice and witness tampering. (An appeals court later overturned Quattrone’s conviction due to faulty jury instructions.) Quattrone forwarded an email suggesting employees should “clean up files” during the course of an investigation, taken as encouraging others to destroy evidence.

WHAT IS THE CHARGE OF OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE?

Obstruction of justice is a crime at both the federal and state levels.

Essentially, obstruction of justice criminalizes any conduct in which a person willfully interferes with the orderly administration of justice. Impeding, influencing, or obstructing any legal proceeding before a federal agency, court, or Congress could all fall within the purview of obstruction. 

Federally, 18 US Code Section 1503 defines “obstruction of justice” as an act that “corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.” 

In addition to Section 1503, various federal statutes criminalize an array of conduct as “obstruction of justice.” 18 US Code Sections 1501 through 1521 identify more than 20 types of obstruction conduct, such as:

  • Hiding evidence.
  • Tampering with evidence (e.g., destroying documents).
  • Tampering with or intimidating witnesses, victims, or informants.
  •  Bribery, attempting to pay off witnesses to provide false testimony.
  • Threatening court officials, members of the jury, witnesses, or judges.
  • Orchestrating unnecessary delays in court proceedings.
  • Providing false information to law enforcement officials.
  • Lying under oath or perjury.

One of the most common federal obstruction of justice charges is tampering with a criminal investigation or prosecution witness. Witness tampering is a felony under 18 US Code Section 1512, which prohibits tampering with a victim or a government informant.

PERJURY AS OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

Perjury bears special attention in relation to obstruction of justice. 

Prosecutors often tack on obstruction charges on anyone who lies to authorities when questioned in the course of an investigation. Possible acts of obstruction include:

  • Lying in written answers to interrogatories.
  • Falsifying documents.
  • Other means of delivering false information to investigators. 

When a witness lies under oath about a relevant issue, prosecutors take the position that it almost always interferes with a prosecutor’s case. For that reason, charges of perjury (or false statements) often come together with obstruction of justice charges.

However, some courts have ruled that lying under oath is not sufficient by itself to convict for obstruction of justice. In those cases, the obstruction count can refer to the same conduct as the perjury count, with one or two extra examples thrown in. Defense counsel can raise this objection when prosecutors rely solely on perjury to sustain an obstruction of justice charge.

*Pro-Tip: For a more extended discussion of Perjury & False Statements, check out this Prison Professors article: 

Perjury & False Statements

EVIDENCE NEEDED TO CONVICT ON OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

To prove obstruction of justice under 18 US Code Section 1503, prosecutors must show three elements. 

First, the obstructive conduct interferes with a legal proceeding, either an open court case, a congressional investigation, a grand jury investigation, or another similar process.

Many federal courts have held that interfering with a police investigation alone is not enough to trigger obstruction statutes because a police investigation is not the kind of legal proceeding that the statute contemplates. On the other hand, grand jury investigations, which determine whether probable cause exists to believe that someone has committed a crime, qualify as “judicial” or “legal proceeding” since judges extensively supervise grand jury proceedings.

*Pro-Tip: Remember to consult legal counsel in connection with any court case.

Second, the obstructive conduct is intentional. That is, the person charged with obstruction of justice must have acted with intent and must have been aware that he was interfering or impeding the administration of justice. The Supreme Court has long held that someone accused of obstruction of justice must have specific intent and knowledge that he was interfering with a proceeding. General ill will or hostility is not enough.

Third, the obstructive conduct is actually likely to interfere with or impact the matter. If it has no bearing, the defendant can argue that the conduct did not impede the administration of justice.

In addition to 18 US Code Section 1503, various other federal law provisions cover obstruction of justice more specifically. Prosecutors generally have the discretion to charge obstruction cases under Section 1503 or a more specific provision.

18 US Code Section 1512 is an example of a more specific provision. It protects witnesses, victims, and informants from any type of tampering. When relying on this provision, the government must show that the defendant:

  • Knowingly engaged in intimidation, physical force, threats, misleading conduct, or corrupt persuasion toward another person; and 
  • The defendant had the intent to influence, delay, or prevent testimony or cause any person to withhold a record, object, document, or testimony from an official proceeding.

WHAT ARE THE CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE?

The criminal penalties for obstruction of justice in a federal case range from non-prosecution to probation and include up to five years in prison and substantial fines. In some cases, the potential federal prison term can go even higher, up to 20 years. Penalties vary at the state level.

Let’s discuss criminal penalties in more detail under federal and state laws.

FEDERAL PENALTIES FOR OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

Obstruction of justice is a serious felony that, under federal law, is generally punishable by up to five years in prison. However, prosecutors can charge federal obstruction under several provisions carrying various criminal penalties for obstruction.

One example is 18 USC Section 1503, the statute that classifies influencing or injuring a juror or an officer of the court, making that conduct punishable by a fine and a prison sentence of a maximum of ten years. 

18 US Code Section 1505, which criminalizes obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, the House of Representatives, and Congressional committees, is punishable by a fine and imprisonment of up to five years.

Under 18 U.S.C. Section 1519, federal obstruction of justice charges can be filed when someone alters or destroys documents or any other “tangible object” with the intent of influencing or obstructing a federal investigation. Destroying evidence related to an investigation is punishable by up to twenty years in prison.

While 18 U.S.C. § 1519 covers cases of tampering with physical evidence in an investigation, 18 U.S.C. Section 1510 covers attempts to prevent witnesses and victims from reporting crimes or complying with law enforcement. The criminal penalty for interfering with a witness in a criminal investigation is up to five years in prison.

STATE PENALTIES FOR OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE

The criminal penalties for obstruction of justice vary at the state level.

Like the federal government, states broadly define obstruction of justice to include tampering with evidence, jurors, public records, or witnesses and victims, as well as refusing to aid law enforcement officials.

Most states punish obstruction of justice as a felony with penalties of up to 3 years in prison. Others charge the crime as a gross misdemeanor with a potential sentence of less than a year in jail and a fine. 

For example, in Illinois, destroying evidence, which is a form of obstruction of justice, is a Class 4 Felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a $25,000 fine. In Washington State, the crime of “obstructing a law enforcement officer” is a gross misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment in a county jail for a maximum of 364 days.

In California, penal code Section 148 makes it a crime to “willfully” delay, resist, or obstruct law enforcement or emergency medical personnel performing their job duties. Obstruction is a misdemeanor or felony and includes falsifying or concealing evidence, bribing or threatening a judge, lawyer, juror, witness, lying under oath as a witness, or resisting arrest.

Criminal penalties in California can be severe in both felony and misdemeanor cases. As a felony, obstruction carries a prison term of up to 5 years along with substantial fines. The prison term can go up to 8 or 10 years if the charge is related to domestic or international terrorism. 

In New Jersey, for example, obstruction of justice charges are generally a disorderly persons offense. If convicted, people face up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. The charge may be upgraded to a fourth-degree offense if a person obstructs an official crime or the investigation of a crime.

In the end, the actual sentence for obstruction of justice in a federal case depends on a court’s evaluation of the defendant’s case and circumstances, informed by the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

CONCLUSION

How do you beat an obstruction of justice charge, people ask. Our best advice is to know what exactly the crime of obstruction entails and avoid engaging in any conduct that prosecutors could interpret as intending to interfere or hamper the efforts of law enforcement.

Simply put, it is a crime at both the federal and state levels to interfere with an official investigation, carrying harsh criminal penalties. People under criminal and civil investigations often try to take matters into their own hands, thinking they can influence their outcomes for the better. But even conduct that appears innocent at first blush can quickly cross the line into allegations of obstruction of justice. 

Prison Professors, an Earning Freedom company, works alongside (not in place of) civil and criminal defense counsel to help clients proactively navigate through investigations and prosecutions. Our team also helps clients prepare mitigation and compliance strategies.

If you have any questions or are uncertain about any of the issues discussed in this post, schedule a call with our risk mitigation team to receive additional guidance.

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