Obstruction of Justice
In the Federal system (laws of the United States of America, not those of the individual States) the law is found at U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 73. The Statute is titaled: “Obstruction of Justice”. The law in State courts is different, so this article is limited in scope to federal prosecutions for obstruction of justice. This statute is used in many different factual and criminal and non-criminal contexts. I am focusing in this article on obstruction of criminal investigations. The statute, however, covers a great many other areas where obstruction of justice is a prosecutable offense. A short list includes: assaulting a process server, resisting an extradition agent, influencing or injuring an officer, injuring a juror, writing to a juror, obstructing the proceedings of a governmental department, agency or committee, recording grand jury proceedings, obstructing court orders, obstructing State law enforcement, witness tampering, and more.
The Section in focus for this article is Section 1510 “Obstruction of Criminal Investigations”. To learn more, or to have a deeper and truly functional understanding of the state of the law you must go to the statute (18 U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 73) and read the statute section(s), the cases that have been decided, the appellate cases from the Federal District Court, the appellate briefs and the U.S. Supreme Court decisions. As this area of law is very well litigated any useful understanding requires one to read the current case law and the preceding cases which show one the intellectual and public policy roots and road upon which this area of law travels and evolves. But a basic understanding can be useful, and this article will give the reader a root and trunk view of what Obstruction of Justice means.
Start by reading the statute wording as it appears in section 1510(a): “Whoever willfully endeavors by means of bribery to obstruct, delay, or prevent the communication of information relating to a violation of any criminal statute of the United States by any person to a criminal investigator, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both”. More helpful is an understanding of the following statement of the law: Obstruction of justice is a crime when one corruptly or by threat or force tries to influence or impede “the due process of justice”. In the real world of federal criminal prosecutions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will prosecute a person, or persons, who uses a threat of harm, or actual physical harm against a court or court official. Ask: did the acts undermine the appearance of a legitimate authority? Was there an overt act? Was the act a threat of harm or intimidation? Was the purpose, or intent of the actor to impede a criminal investigation or a criminal process (such as an investigation, a courtroom hearing, or a trial). Also, and most often, one is prosecuted under the statute for lying to investigators or misleading an investigator. Judges, prosecutors and Attorney Generals (State attorneys) can be prosecuted under the Obstruction laws when their acts (as judges or prosecutors, or investigators) are done in bad faith, can be characterized as misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance. Those terms mean basically not doing their function properly in looking into allegations of crimes, ruling in bad faith (that means against the facts as presented and shown) or by ignoring their duties as agents of the judicial system by avoiding, delaying or ignoring violations of criminal laws.