What is an Obstructing Justice Charge?

If you’ve ever watched a police drama, you’ve heard the term “obstruction of justice” before. Typically it’s a term that comes out when the lead detectives are closing in on a suspect, but someone is refusing to cooperate. The good guys need leverage, so they threaten to charge someone with obstructing justice if they don’t cooperate with the investigation, and give them the information they need. Typically that’s when the resistance cracks, and the formerly reluctant character starts spewing exposition, telling our leads exactly what they need to know.

Unfortunately, like most things we see in legal dramas, obstruction of justice is very different in the real world than how it’s portrayed on TV.

What is an Obstructing Justice Charge?

In order for the courts to do their job in America, all participants have to be honest, and there must be no fear of reprisals. That’s why if someone tries to influence the judicial system to rig the results in a certain direction, that person can be charged with obstructing justice.

That seems like a really broad definition of a charge, but the federal statutes are 18 U.S.C.A. 1501-1517 have been quite broadly interpreted over the years, according to The Free Dictionary. Because the integrity of the court is seen as paramount to its very existence, courts tend to err on the side of keeping the process as pure and uninfluenced as possible.

So What Counts as Obstruction?

Obstruction comes in both obvious, and less obvious, forms. For example, bribing or attempting to bribe any official of the court to alter the outcome of a proceeding is obstruction. Whether it’s bribing the judge to rule in a certain way during a bench trial, or bribing a low-level court secretary to destroy documents, it’s still obstruction. So is threatening any court official, or witnesses, in order to intimidate them into backing off a case, or acting in a certain way.

Chances are good that if an act could be considered a roadblock to a legitimate legal proceeding, then that act qualifies for an obstruction of justice charge. It’s also important to note that the act doesn’t have to succeed; the attempt is all that’s necessary. Put another way, it doesn’t matter if your bribe was successful, of if the person you attempted to intimidate changed their behavior in any way; the point is that you made the effort to obstruct justice.

So, is Lying to The Cops Obstruction of Justice?

This is where we get back to the most common example we see in movies and TV of an obstruction of justice charge. When the lead detectives have cornered someone they’re sure has information, but that person just won’t give it up. It that an obstruction of justice?

Not usually, no. You see, along with a slew of other rights guaranteed to you, you have the right to remain silent. So, choosing not to speak is not an obstruction of justice (though it can lead to tense situations, and will likely mean you should call a lawyer in the very near future). However, lying to the police, or deliberately misleading them, is an obstruction of justice. Not only that, but lying to investigators is a separate crime in and of itself, as Martha Stewart found out according to Quick and Dirty Tips.

If you’re even in doubt about what you should do in a legal matter, remember to stop, take a breath, and consult a lawyer. It’s better to be sure, and to operate with expert advice, than to say or do something well-meaning that can make things worse in the long run. If you find yourself dealing with an obstructing justice charge, or other criminal charges, simply contact us today!

Disclaimer: The content of this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact Jennifer Speas to discuss the specifics of your case.