What is Obstruction of Justice?

Attempting to derail a law enforcement investigation can come in many forms: witness tampering, lying to an investigator, or destroying documents related to a case under investigation. Any one of these actions can be considered an obstruction of justice, but the charge is difficult to prove.

The actions of obstruction do not have to take place during a trial but can happen at any point in a legal investigation. The penalty for obstruction is a sentence of up to five years in prison. There are laws at both the state and federal levels that deal with obstruction.

The law specifically stipulates that anyone who bribes another to stop a criminal investigation or that anyone who warns a person under subpoena about the contents of a grand jury demand for information or who intervenes in appropriately in an interstate commerce investigation may be charged with obstruction.

Famous Incidents

In one of the country's best-known cases, President Richard Nixon was accused of obstruction of justice when he lied about his knowledge of the infamous break-in at the Watergate office building. The operatives aimed at planting listening devices in the offices of the Democratic National Party. Nixon was tripped up by tape recordings of conversations leading up to the break-in, which were automatically made during meetings in his office. Rather than face impeachment he resigned the presidency.

President Bill Clinton was also accused of obstruction of justice when he lied about having an inappropriate sexual relationship with an intern. He was acquitted of the charges that contributed to impeachment.

Typical Cases

In 2012 a woman from Michigan was sentenced to 27 months in prison for embezzling more than $120,000 from her employer. When the court learned that a letter submitted as evidence had been forged by the defendant they determined that act to be obstruction of justice and sentenced her to an additional 21 months in jail. The letter, which described her as a model employee, was submitted to her attorneys who did not know it was a forgery. The woman admitted that she hoped the letter would influence the court to give her a lighter sentence.

In another case, a business executive gave misleading information during an antitrust case involving his employer, Coach. The executive ordered his subordinates to destroy records of emails that might have been helpful to investigators. He also made misleading statements during a legal deposition in the proceedings. He was eventually sentenced to 15 months in jail and to pay a $5,000 fine.

An Unusual Occurrence

An F.B.I. agent was dismissed from his position as special agent and charged with obstruction of justice in 2014 after an unusual turn of events. Apparently in 2007 agent Timothy Joel came into contact with a Korean woman who was arrested on the Mexico border when she was being smuggled into the country to work as a prostitute. Over the next several years, he supplied her with funds, shared an apartment with her, and lied to his superiors, saying she was an important witness in a human smuggling investigation.