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What Is Obstruction of Justice?

In obstruction of justice cases, the crime is considered to be committed against justice itself, as an offender seeks to thwart the process of justice and the orderly proceedings of the justice system. Anyone from a regular person to a president can be accused and convicted of this crime and face severe penalties at both the state and federal levels. With such a serious crime, it is crucial to have a strong federal criminal defense attorney to argue on your behalf.
What Is Obstruction of Justice

Federal Obstruction of Justice

Under federal statutes, obstruction of justice is defined as any act that “corruptly or by threats of force, or any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.” This can fall into three categories.

Interference with judicial processes and court proceedings can occur when someone:

  • Obstructs, resists, opposes, assaults, or exposes process servers and extradition agents in the execution of their duties
  • Attempts to influence, threaten, intimidate, or impede a juror, grand jury, court officer, judge, or magistrate
  • Retaliates against a federal judge or federal law enforcement officer by making false claims against or slandering them
  • Tries to influence a juror through written communication or by picketing or parading outside a courtroom
  • Records the deliberations or voting of a jury, or observes or listens in on a jury one is not part of
  • Steals, falsifies, or in other ways tampers with the proceedings of any court in the United States so that a judgment is reversed, voided, or fails to take effect or effects a false release or bail
  • Tampers with or retaliates against a witness, victim, or an informant in a trial or legal proceeding, including killing or attempting to kill, in order to prevent evidence from being shared
  • Uses threats or force to prevent, obstruct, or interfere with the performance of a court order

  • Interference with law enforcement and investigation of a crime occurs when someone:

  • Obstructs a pending investigation by Congress, or a committee of either House, a federal administrative agency, or a federal department, or the Armed Forces
  • Obstructs pending investigations involving the insurance industry, federal audits, financial institutions, or health care offenses
  • Conspires to obstruct law enforcement in order to facilitate illegal gambling

  • Destruction or concealment of evidence occurs when someone:

  • Falsifies records in federal investigations and in bankruptcy cases or destroys corporate audit records
  • Commits bribery
  • Threatens, uses physical force, or assaults someone
  • Tampers with evidence: concealing, destroying, altering, or falsifying documents and written and oral testimony
  • Makes false statements mean to mislead investigators by intentionally omitting relevant information, concealing material facts, creating a false impression, knowingly submitting or inviting reliance on physical evidence that is false, forged, or altered
  • Abuses power to prevent or obstruct compliance by others with an investigator or judicial proceeding

  • Depending on which type of obstruction is committed and what code it falls under, the elements required for an obstruction of justice conviction can differ. The person must always have acted with the specific intent to create an obstruction in order to be convicted, but they do not have to be successful.

    Obstruction of Justice in State Laws

    Each state has some laws surrounding obstruction of justice, though they tend to focus more on acts that interfere with the day-to-day job of police officers. Some states have laws that define specific acts as criminal, while others are broader. For example, Florida outlaws the “unlawful possession of a concealed handcuff key,” while California makes it a crime to “willfully resist, delay, or obstruct” a police officer performing their job duties.


    The federal code around obstruction of justice sets different sentences for different areas of the code, so there is no standard punishment for obstruction. Instead, it depends on the type and means.

    For example, threatening or attempting to intimidate a juror 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 class B felony against a juror, the sentence can be up to twenty years in prison. Less severe acts, like attempting to influence a juror through non-threatening written communication, carry a fine and up to six months in prison.

    Most state laws classify obstruction of justice offenses as felonies, but there is again great variability in sentencing and punishments.

    Presidential Obstruction of Justice

    Often, people have heard of obstruction of justice because it has been used in impeachment proceedings for the president of the United States in three of the four instances where impeachment has occurred. In these cases, the code section that describes “obstruction of proceedings before departments, agencies, and committees” was referenced and garnered massive public attention.

    In 1972, during the re-election campaign for President Richard Nixon, associates of his campaign team broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters and planted listening devices while collecting sensitive information. Nixon initially denied involvement in an attempt to cover the crime, but recordings obtained in a subpoena incriminated him. He resigned from the presidency before the House could vote on articles of impeachment that charged him with obstruction of justice.

    In 1996, President Bill Clinton faced charges for obstruction of justice as well as perjury after he lied about a sexual encounter with a White House intern. These charges again were the basis of impeachment proceedings, though he finished his term after being acquitted by the Senate.

    In 2020, President Donald Trump was similarly charged with obstruction of Congress after he instructed administration officials to ignore subpoenas for documents and testimonies in relation to a formal House inquiry into election interference. Like Clinton, he was ultimately acquitted by the Senate and completed his term as president.

    For these presidents, impeachment was the primary consequence, rather than criminal charges and penalties. However, it highlights that obstruction of justice is taken extremely seriously as a crime, and no one, including the country’s leader, is considered above the law when it comes to these crimes.

    Presidential Obstruction of Justice

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