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What Actions Constitute Obstruction of Justice?

Whatever behavior a person exhibits that intentionally impedes or interferes with a government investigation or prosecution constitutes the crime of obstruction of justice. The purpose of federal obstruction of justice charges is to safeguard the integrity of the criminal justice process. The charges apply to every stage of that process, from law enforcement investigations through prosecution to sentencing.

The federal obstruction of justice charges that are most common are filed against people that willfully and knowingly interfere with a government investigation or court proceedings. These offenses, including witness tampering, destroying evidence, and bribing the jury, lend truth to the old proverb that says “sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.”

Concealing, Falsifying or Destroying Records in a Federal Investigation

Pursuant 18 U.S.C. Section 1519, federal obstruction of justice charges if an individual alters or destroys a document, or any other “tangible object,” with the intent of influencing or obstructing a federal investigation. Destroying evidence connected to an investigation carries up to twenty years in prison.

What Must Government Prosecutors Prove to Get a Conviction on Obstruction of Justice Charges

Nevertheless, it’s not enough for the government to demonstrate that a person falsified or destroyed documents while they were being investigated, the fact that those documents later turned out to be key evidence in an investigation notwithstanding.

To get a conviction for the crime of falsifying or destroying evidence related to a federal investigation, the government is obligated to prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. They must prove that the documents or “tangible object” destroyed or falsified was relevant to a federal matter; and
  2. That the defendant falsified, destroyed, or concealed said documents with the intent to obstruct a potential or pending investigation.

The courts interpret the phrase “tangible object” to include all types of physical evidence. Therefore, the law basically outlaws tampering with any type of evidence involved in an investigation.

Also, courts have broadly construed “federal matter” to mean any area where the federal government is able to exercise its power, including criminal and civil investigations. Clearly, this refers to criminal investigations.  In reality, private companies who hide information from government agencies can also be considered a “federal matter”. For example, a CEO of an energy company that lies to the EPA about how much the company pollutes is just as liable for falsifying evidence as is an individual who shreds incriminating documents when the FBI raids his house.

Defenses to Obstruction of Justice Charges

Several defenses to federal obstruction of justice charges are available. Even in cases where the government can demonstrate that a person concealed, destroyed or falsified evidence, the defense can argue that they didn’t have the intent to interfere with an investigation.

If an individuals being charged for shredding documents that were later relevant in an investigation, they can pose the argument  that they shredded the documents in the ordinary, routine course of business. They can also argue that they were unaware of an investigation, or that the documents were not relevant to the investigation.

Other Laws Covering Federal Obstruction of Justice in an Investigation

The statute 18 U.S.C. Section 1510 prohibits preventing witnesses and victims from reporting crimes or complying with law enforcement. Interfering with a witness in a criminal investigation carries up to five years in prison.

As with the majority of obstruction of justice charges, the government must demonstrate that a defendant acted with an intent to obstruct the course of a criminal investigation.  For example, offering a victim or an eyewitness a bribe in exchange for their silence constitutes obstruction in a criminal investigation.


In some scenarios, obstruction is less obvious. It is against the law, for example, for financial institutions and insurance companies to notify an individual hen they receive a government subpoena for that person’s records. These organizations are also prohibited from alerting that person as to what information they produced in response to the subpoena.

Federal Obstruction of Justice Charges in Court

Some common obstruction charges are aimed at conduct surrounding a court proceeding as soon as an investigation becomes a prosecution. Such charges include tampering with a jury or a witness and bribing an officer of the court.

Here are some of the possible charges for obstruction in a court proceeding:

  1. Influencing or Injuring a Juror or Officer of the Court 18 U.S.C. Section 1503

To “influence, intimidate, or impede” a juror or “officer of the court” Is a felony offense. To get a conviction on this charge, the prosecutors have to prove:

  • Any communication or action
  • That is directed at the jury or others involved in the proceeding
  • With the intention of influencing the outcome of the proceeding

“Proceedings” refer to every phase of a trial or hearing. This includes jury deliberations on a verdict, a judge ruling on a motion, or a probation officer offering a recommendation during sentencing.

Influencing, Intimidating or Impeding

What actions count as influencing, intimidating or impeding? The courts have upheld convictions under this law covering a variety of infractions, including bribery, harassment, and efforts to sway a juror through a mutual family member or friend.

The legislation reaches beyond jurors and officers of the court. It also criminalizes any action that can impede “the due administration of justice.” Courts have the leeway to interpret this vague phrase to encompass a wide range of conduct, including destroying documents that have been subpoenaed and concealing a witness from authorities (even if the witness is in agreement).  In one notable case, a journalist wrote newspaper articles criticizing the judge on a case. Government prosecutors were able to prove that the newspaper editor acted with a specific intent to interfere with the investigation.

Trying to influence a juror by sending them a written communication is also illegal, carrying up to six months. Other obstruction offenses, such as interfering with a court order or forging court documents, have maximum sentences of one year and five years, respectively.


  1. Witness Tampering

A rather common form of federal obstruction of justice charges is tampering with a witness in a criminal investigation or prosecution. Witness tampering is a felony offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 1512, which also prohibits tampering with a victim or a government informant.

This legislation gives multiple definitions for witness tampering.  These include assaulting a witness, harassing a witness, or otherwise “corruptly persuading” a witness, such as through bribery, to change their story or avoid testifying. The law also prohibits tampering with evidence.

Penalties for Witness Tampering

At least six types of witness tampering charges can be filed under 18 U.S.C. § 1512. Each carries different penalties:


  1. Murdering a witness or victim to prevent them from testifying, producing evidence, or communicating with law enforcement is punishable by a maximum sentence of life in behind bars.
  2. Using or attempting to use physical force on a witness or victim to sway their testimony or prevent their appearance in court is punishable by a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
  3. Threatening to use physical force on a witness or victim to delay or sway their testimony, prevent their appearance in court, or force them to falsify evidence carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
  4. Bribing a witness or victim to delay or influence their testimony, interfere with their appearance in court, or force them to falsify evidence is punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years.
  5. Intentionally harassing a witness or victim to delay or prevent them from testifying or showing up in court carries up to 3 years.
  6. Individuals who tamper with evidence, by altering, destroying, or concealing a record, document or other tangible object with the intent to interfere with a court proceeding can be punished with up to 20 years in prison.

If you are facing obstruction charges, call us for a free and confidential consultation.


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