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What, Exactly, Is Obstruction of Justice?

Many are surprised to learn that obstruction of justice is a broad concept.  Several different federal statutes criminalize obstruction of justice.  Each defines the offense in slightly different ways and criminalizes slightly different conduct.  Broadly speaking, the two main obstruction-of-justice statutes – section 1503 and section 1505 of the federal criminal code – make it a felony to “corruptly” influence, obstruct, or impede a pending federal proceeding. 

  • Obstruction of justice requires a pending federal proceeding. The nature of the proceeding determines obstruction-of-justice statute that can be charged.  To violate section 1503, the proceeding must be a judicial action, like a court case or a grand jury proceeding.  Section 1505, by contrast, criminalizes obstruction of proceedings before an executive agency – for example, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, etc. – or a congressional committee.
  • Actions “influence, obstruct, or impede” a proceeding when the actions have the “natural and probable effect” of interfering with the proceeding.
  • Not every action that interferes with a proceeding is obstruction, however. The individual taking the action must act “corruptly.”  In other words, he must be aware of the proceeding, he must know that his actions will foreseeably interfere, and he must intend that result.

A wide range of conduct can qualify as obstruction of justice.  For example, former New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens was indicted on (and ultimately acquitted of) obstruction charges alleging that he made false and misleading statements to Congress in hearings on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.  Obstruction can also result from efforts to influence witness testimony – Paul Manafort pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction for doing precisely that.

Attempted bribery of a government official, like a judge or prosecutor, can qualify as obstruction.  So can the destruction or concealment of documents or other evidence.  Intentionally evasive or misleading testimony before a grand jury or congressional committee could also qualify as obstruction of justice.

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