Obstruction of justice is a criminal offense of interfering with the (1) administration or process of law, (2) withholding material information or giving false testimony, or (3) harming or intimidating a juror, witness, or officer of law.
The crime of obstruction of justice generally includes crimes committed by judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, and elected officials. It is considered as a misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in the conduct of the office. However, prosecutors and attorneys commit obstruction of justice when they fail to prosecute judges and other government officials for malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance in office.
Generally, obstruction charges are laid when it is discovered that a non-suspect person has lied to the investigating officers. Obstruction charges can also be laid if a person alters or destroys physical evidence, even if s/he was under no compulsion to produce such evidence, at any time. Obstruction of justice is a broad concept that extends to any effort to prevent the execution of lawful process or the administration of justice in either a criminal or civil matter. Obstructive conduct also includes the intimidation of potential witnesses or retaliation against actual witnesses, the preparation of false testimony or other evidence, or the interference with jurors or other court personnel. The purpose of criminal obstruction statutes is to protect the integrity of legal proceedings and, at the same time, protect those individuals who participate in such proceedings.
The principal statutes in this area contained in chapter 73 of United States Code Title 18 are:
- section 1501 (misdemeanor to obstruct a federal process or writ server);
- section 1502 (misdemeanor to obstruct or resist an extradition agent);
- section 1503 (felony provision that targets efforts to influence or injure a court officer or juror, as well as other obstructionary efforts);
- section 1504 (misdemeanor to influence a juror by writing);
- section 1505 (felony to obstruct proceedings before departments, agencies, committees);
- section 1506 (felony to steal or alter a court record or provide a phony bail surety);
- section 1507 (misdemeanor to picket or parade with the intent of impeding or obstructing the administration of justice);
- section 1508 (misdemeanor to record or observe proceedings of grand or petit juries while deliberating or voting);
- section 1509 (misdemeanor to obstruct court orders); section 1510 (felony to obstruct criminal investigations);
- section 1511 (felony to obstruct state or local law enforcement with the intent to facilitate an illegal gambling business);
- section 1512 (felony to tamper with a witness, victim, or informant);
- section 1513 (felony to retaliate against a witness, victim, or informant);
- section 1516 (felony to obstruct a federal audit);
- section 1517 (felony to obstruct the examination of a financial institution); and
- section 1518 (felony to obstruct a criminal investigation of health care offenses.
Section 1503 offers broad protection to the “due administration of justice” by stating that a person who “corruptly or by threats of force, or by threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice.
The government must prove that 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, in order to obtain a conviction under section 1503. Under the statute, actual obstruction is not necessary as an element of proof to sustain a conviction. The defendant’s endeavor to obstruct justice is sufficient. The courts define “endeavor” as an effort to accomplish the purpose the statute was enacted to prevent.