Obstruction of Justice

The term “obstruction of justice” refers to any action that a person willfully takes to obstruct, or hinder, the administration of justice. Obstruction of justice occurs when a person offers false information, or otherwise takes some action that frustrates an investigation or other legal process. An example of an obstruction of justice would be a person lying to the court and, as a result, being handed a harsher sentence as punishment. To explore this concept, consider the following obstruction of justice definition.

Definition of Obstruction of Justice

Noun

  1. The crime of willfully taking measures to obstruct the process of justice by providing false information or otherwise hampering an investigation or legal process.

Origin

1525-1535       Latin    (obstructiōn)

Obstruction of Justice by Elected Officials

“Obstruction of justice” typically refers to activities related to the obstruction of justice by elected officials. Such activities include those engaged in by judges, prosecutors, and attorneys general. Obstruction of justice by elected officials is the interference with the process of justice by:

  • Withholding important information or giving false testimony
  • Causing harm to or intimidating a juror, witness, or member of law enforcement
  • Failing to prosecute government officials for crimes they have committed

For example, obstruction of justice by elected officials occurs when authorities discover that an individual lied during an investigation. They may also charge him or her with obstruction of justice for changing or destroying evidence related to the investigation. This is true even if the individual was not required to produce the evidence at that time.

There are several statutes within the United States Code Title 18 that cover various types of obstruction of justice, including:

  • Tampering with or retaliating against witnesses and informants
  • Attempting to influence a juror in writing
  • Stealing or altering a court record
  • Picketing or parading with the intention of obstructing justice

5th Amendment and Obstruction

When a person “pleads the Fifth,” this means that he is invoking his rights under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. This means that no individual should feel forced to testify against himself. Put another way, if a witness could give the government evidence needed to prosecute a case, he does not have to answer if he feels the answer may incriminate him.

Lawyers often advise their clients to plead the Fifth Amendment when they are involved in two cases at the same time: a civil case and a criminal case. There are multiple reasons for this. For one, the information a person offers in a civil investigation could incriminate him in the ongoing criminal case.

On a related note, if the person makes an innocent mistake in a civil matter, he could face criminal charges for the information he didn’t provide. In this case, the individual could potentially face an obstruction of justice or perjury charge. It is therefore better for him to plead the Fifth, rather than risk implication, or further implication, in a criminal investigation.

Obstruction of Justice Penalty

The range of situations wherein a person can face an obstruction of justice charge is wide. Therefore, so too are the penalties for an obstruction of justice conviction. A typical obstruction of justice penalty can be anywhere from a fine (misdemeanor), to 10 years in prison (felony).

The court decides on the appropriate obstruction of justice penalty based on:

  • The state wherein the offense takes place
  • The type of offense committed
  • The type of court that is hearing the case.

For instance, if a person lies to a police officer about his identity during a traffic stop, this is usually a misdemeanor. However, if a person shreds a document that would otherwise be useful evidence during a federal investigation, then this is more than likely a felony.

Anticipatory Obstruction of Justice

Anticipatory obstruction of justice is a relatively new law that Congress enacted in 2002. The law relates to the Sarbanes Oxley Act, which is a federal law that established new and expanded financial regulations. These regulations were to aid companies in being more transparent with their investors.

The Anticipatory Obstruction of Justice law provides that:

“Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States…, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

Controversy

People received the new Anticipatory Obstruction of Justice as controversial. They were upset to see that it removed the burdens of proof that were formerly in place against the government. Specifically, the government no longer has to offer proof as to which specific proceeding the accused tried to obstruct. What the prosecution does have to prove are the following:

  • That the accused knowingly tried to obstruct a matter within the jurisdiction of a U.S. department or agency; and
  • That the accused acted “in relation to” or “in contemplation” of the matter.

Obstruction of Justice Example Involving Enron

Perhaps the most famous example of obstruction of justice heard by the U.S. Supreme Court was the matter of Arthur Anderson LLP v. United States. This case is famously known as the “Enron scandal.” The case was also noteworthy as being the end of accounting firm Arthur Andersen. Up until this point, Arthur Andersen had been the main auditor for Enron and, by 2001, was one of the largest multinational companies in the world.

Background

Enron was a company specializing in, among other things, natural gas and electricity. When the company began experiencing financial trouble in 2001, Arthur Andersen learned of an impending investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). He then directed the company’s employees to destroy all documents related to Enron. This was a directive that was in line with the company’s policy.

In May of 2002, the SEC filed an obstruction of justice charge against Arthur Andersen. A jury then found Arthur Andersen guilty the following month. Federal law prohibits convicted felons from auditing public companies. Therefore, Arthur Andersen surrendered its CPA license at the end of August and the company closed its doors in the U.S.

Appeal

Arthur Andersen appealed the conviction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The argument on appeal was that the judge’s instructions to the jury were unclear. They argued that the judge’s instructions failed to convey the necessary requirements when deciding a “corrupt persuasion” conviction. The Fifth Circuit denied the appeal and upheld the conviction.

Supreme Court

Arthur Andersen filed a writ of certiorari, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The question the Court had to decide was whether the trial judge’s instructions to the jury were, in fact, clear. Did the jury understand the necessary elements clearly enough to issue a “corrupt persuasion” conviction? Put another way, was the law Arthur Andersen allegedly broke portrayed clearly enough to warrant such a conviction?

Surprisingly, the Court unanimously ruled that no, it wasn’t. The judge’s instructions to the jury were not clear, and the jury issued a conviction that it should never have issued. There was nothing corrupt about ordering employees to destroy documents, even if the motive was to keep the documents from the government. Therefore, a jury could only convict Andersen if there was proof that the persuaders willfully engaged in corrupt behavior.

However, despite the Court overturning the conviction, Arthur Andersen was unable to recover. The fact that this case had dragged his name through the mud didn’t help. Neither did the law that prohibited him from conducting any further audits in the U.S. So, despite the victory at the Supreme Court, the company ultimately went under.

The Decision, in the Court’s Own Words

What follows is an excerpt from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in this case:

“The jury instructions failed to convey the requisite consciousness of wrongdoing. Indeed, it is striking how little culpability the instructions required. For example, the jury was told that, even if petitioner honestly and sincerely believed its conduct was lawful, the jury could convict. The instructions also diluted the meaning of ‘corruptly’ such that it covered innocent conduct. The District Court based its instruction on the Fifth Circuit Pattern Jury Instruction for §1503, which defined ‘corruptly as ‘knowingly and dishonestly, with the specific intent to subvert or undermine the integrity’ of a proceeding. However, the court agreed with the Government’s insistence on excluding ‘dishonestly’ and adding the term ‘impede’ to the phrase ‘subvert or undermine,’ so the jury was told to convict if it found petitioner intended to ‘subvert, undermine, or impede’ governmental factfinding by suggesting to its employees that they enforce the document retention policy. These changes were significant.

“‘[D]ishonest[y]’ was no longer necessary to a finding of guilt, and it was enough for petitioner to have simply ‘impede[d]’ the Government’s factfinding ability. ’Impede’ has broader connotations than ‘subvert’ or even ‘undermine,’ and many of these connotations do not incorporate any ‘corrupt[ness]’ at all. Under the dictionary definition of ‘impede,’ anyone who innocently persuades another to withhold information from the Government ‘get[s] in the way of the progress of’ the Government. With regard to such innocent conduct, the ‘corruptly’ instructions did no limiting work whatsoever. The instructions also led the jury to believe that it did not have to find any nexus between the ‘persua[sion]’ to destroy documents and any particular proceeding. In resisting any nexus element, the Government relies on §1512(e)(1), which states that an official proceeding ‘need not be pending or about to be instituted at the time of the offense.’ It is, however, quite another thing to say a proceeding need not even be foreseen. A ‘knowingly … corrup[t] persaude[r]’ cannot be someone who persuades others to shred documents under a document retention policy when he does not have in contemplation any particular official proceeding in which those documents might be material.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.

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