Obstruction of justice is when someone acts in a way to intentionally impede or interfere with a government investigation or prosecution. Federal obstruction of justice charges are designed to protect the integrity of the criminal justice process, and they apply to every stage of that process, from law enforcement investigations to prosecution and sentencing.
The most common federal obstruction of justice charges are brought against people that willfully and knowingly interfere with a government investigation or court proceedings. These crimes, which include witness tampering, destroying evidence, and bribing the jury, lend truth to the old saying that “sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.”
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 1519, federal obstruction of justice charges if someone alters or destroys a document, 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.
But it’s not enough for the government to prove a person falsified or destroyed documents while they were being investigated, even if those documents later turned out to be key evidence in an investigation.
To convict someone of falsifying or destroying evidence related to a federal investigation, the government must prove two things beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) the documents or “tangible object” destroyed or falsified was relevant to a federal matter; and (2) that the defendant falsified, destroyed, or concealed it with the intent to obstruct a potential or pending investigation.
Courts have interpreted the phrase “tangible object” to include all forms of physical evidence, so the law essentially outlaws tampering with any type of evidence involved in an investigation.
Courts have also broadly construed “federal matter” to mean any area where the federal government can exercise its power, including criminal and civil investigations. This obviously includes criminal investigations, but also private companies who hide information from government agencies. A CEO of an energy company that lies to the EPA about how much the company pollutes is just as liable for falsifying evidence as is a criminal suspect that shreds incriminating documents when the FBI raids his house.
There are several defenses to federal obstruction of justice charges, however. Even if the government can prove a person destroyed, falsified, or concealed evidence, defendants can present evidence that they didn’t have the intent to interfere with an investigation.
If a person is being charged for shredding documents that were later relevant in an investigation, they can argue that they shredded them in the ordinary, routine course of business. They may also argue that they were unaware of an investigation, or that the documents were irrelevant to the investigation.
While 18 U.S.C. § 1519 is aimed at tampering with physical evidence in an investigation, 18 U.S.C. Section 1510 prohibits preventing witnesses and victims from reporting crimes or complying with law enforcement. The penalty with interfering with a witness in a criminal investigation is up to five years in prison.
As with most obstruction of justice charges, the government has to prove a defendant acted with an intent to obstruct the course of a criminal investigation.
It is illegal to bribe a person in order to delay or prevent them from relaying information to law enforcement about a crime that’s been committed. For example, offering a victim or an eyewitness a bribe in exchange for their silence would constitute obstructing a criminal investigation.
Sometimes the situation is less obvious. It is also a crime, for example, for financial institutions and insurance companies to notify a person when they receive a government subpoena for that person’s records. Neither can these organizations alert that person as to what information they produced in response to the subpoena.
Other common obstruction charges are aimed at conduct surrounding a court proceeding once an investigation becomes a prosecution. These charges include meddling with a jury, bribing an officer of the court, and witness tampering.
Under 18 U.S.C. Section 1503, it is a felony to “influence, intimidate, or impede” a juror or “officer of the court.” To convict someone of this crime, the government has to prove:
“Proceedings” include every phase of a trial or hearing, including jury deliberations on a verdict, a judge ruling on a motion, or a probation officer making a recommendation during sentencing.
What counts as influencing, intimidating or impeding? Courts have upheld convictions under this law covering a variety of actions, including bribery, harassment, and efforts to sway a juror through a mutual family member or friend.
But the law reaches beyond jurors and officers of the court. The law also criminalizes any action that can interfere with “the due administration of justice.” Courts have interpreted this vague phrase to encompass a wide range of conduct, including destroying documents that have been subpoenaed, hiding a witness from authorities (even if the witness consents), and, in one case, writing newspaper articles critical of the judge, since the government proved the newspaper editor acted with a specific intent to interfere with the investigation.
There are other forms of federal obstruction of justice charges in a judicial proceeding. Attempting to influence a juror by sending them a written communication, for example, is punishable by up to six months. Other obstruction crimes, such as interfering with a court order or forging court documents, have maximum sentences of up to one year and five years, respectively.
One of the most common forms of federal obstruction of justice charges is tampering with a witness in a criminal investigation or prosecution. Witness tampering is a felony under 18 U.S.C. Section 1512, which also prohibits tampering with a victim or a government informant.
The law provides multiple definitions for witness tampering, including assaulting a witness, harassing a witness, or otherwise “corruptly persuading” a witness, such as by bribing them, to change their story or avoid testifying. The law also has a provision prohibiting tampering with evidence.
There are at least six types of witness tampering charges that can be brought under 18 U.S.C. § 1512, each with different penalties:
We have successfully represented clients in federal criminal cases across the United States. Our firm has offices in Atlanta GA, Alexandria VA, and Washington DC, and we frequently travel to other federal courts to represent people in serious federal criminal cases.
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