What You Should Know about Obstruction of Justice

Q: What does it mean to "obstruct justice?"
A: Generally, any act that is intended to interfere with the administration of justice may constitute obstruction of justice. There are many different kinds of obstruction of justice that are covered by different federal and state statutes. For example, separate federal statutes cover obstruction of court orders, obstruction of criminal investigations, obstruction of state and local law enforcement of gambling statutes, and tampering with or retaliating against witnesses, victims and informants.

Q: What sorts of acts may constitute obstruction of justice?
A: Obstruction may consist of any attempt to hinder the discovery, apprehension, conviction or punishment of anyone who has committed a crime. The acts by which justice is obstructed may include bribery, murder, intimidation, and the use of physical force against witnesses, law enforcement officers or court officials. The purpose may be to influence, delay or prevent the communication of information to law enforcement officers; to influence, delay or prevent court testimony; to alter or destroy evidence; or to evade a subpoena or similar court process.

Q: Does obstruction of justice always involve bribery or physical force?
A: No. One particularly murky category of obstruction is the use of "misleading conduct" toward another person for the purpose of obstructing justice. "Misleading conduct" may consist of deliberate lies or "material omissions" (leaving out facts which are crucial to a case). It may also include knowingly submitting or inviting a judge or jury to rely on false or misleading physical evidence, such as documents, maps, photographs or other objects. Any other "trick, scheme, or device with intent to mislead" may constitute a "misleading conduct" form of obstruction.

Q: How has the "misleading conduct" category of obstruction of justice been used?
A: The definition of "misleading conduct" is so general that it can be used to fit many different situations. For instance, Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr attempted to apply the obstruction statutes very broadly in his investigation of former President Clinton. Mr. Starr argued that Mr. Clinton committed obstruction of justice by denying to friends and subordinates that he engaged in intimate contact with Monica Lewinsky. According to Starr, this constituted "misleading conduct" obstruction because Mr. Clinton expected that his denials would be repeated to the grand jury that was investigating the relationship. Mr. Starr also prosecuted Susan McDougal for obstruction because she refused to testify before the grand jury about Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's investment in the Whitewater real estate project (McDougal was acquitted). And Mr. Starr unsuccessfully prosecuted Julie Hiatt Steele for obstructing the Lewinsky investigation by claiming that she lied to a grand jury about what and when former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey had told her concerning an alleged sexual advance by Mr. Clinton.

Q: What is "obstruction of official business"?
A: Under Ohio law, it is a second-degree misdemeanor to hamper or impede a police officer or other public official in the performance of his or her official duties. This charge encompasses a wide range of affirmative acts, including, for example, lying to a police officer or fleeing from an officer after being ordered to stop. Note that an affirmative act is required, which means that a failure to act--such as refusing to provide identification--does not fall within the statute.

Q: Must a court case be pending for obstruction to occur?
A: No. An official proceeding need not be pending or about to be instituted at the time of the offense. This was illustrated in the Martha Stewart case; her alleged obstruction occurred very early in the investigation. Furthermore, she ended up not being charged with the underlying crime that was being investigated. 

Q: What is the penalty for obstruction?
A: Generally, federal obstruction of justice is punishable by up to five years in prison. If the obstruction occurs in connection with the trial of a federal criminal case, the defendant may be sentenced to either five years in prison, or the maximum sentence that could be imposed in the trial in which the obstruction occurred, whichever is greater. For example, if the obstruction occurs in connection with a drug trafficking case carrying a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, the person who obstructed justice might receive 20 years in prison for obstructing justice. If the person who obstructed justice was also the defendant in the drug trafficking case, the obstruction sentence might be added to the drug trafficking sentence, for a maximum possible sentence of 40 years in prison.

In Ohio courts, obstruction of official business is a second-degree misdemeanor generally punishable by up to 90 days in jail. If the obstruction creates a risk of physical harm to anyone, it is a fifth-degree felony punishable by up to 12 months in jail.


This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column is provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was originally prepared by David F. Axelrod, a partner in the Columbus firm, Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease, LLP, and updated by Bridget Purdue Riddell and Douglas Riddell of Riddell Law LLC.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.



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