Obstruction of justice is a criminal charge that is used to bring down politicians and other public officials—elected or appointed—who have knowingly attempted to disrupt criminal proceedings or otherwise interfere with the workings of the criminal justice system. Obstruction statutes were put in place to punish politicians and other powerful public officials who lie or attempt to “cheat the system,” and to prevent those transgressions from occurring. And, for the most part, they work, too.
What Is Obstruction of Justice?
Simply put, obstruction of justice is defined as the offense of interfering with the administration or process of law in a criminal or civil matter; withholding key information or information; giving false testimony; or harming or intimidating a juror, witness, law enforcement officer or other official.
The charge may also be brought against a person found to have altered and/or destroyed physical evidence, even if he or she was under no legal obligation to produce the evidence. Finally, a person charged with obstruction of justice may also be involved in attempts to hinder the identification, arrest, conviction or sentencing of a criminal.
Very often, a charge of obstruction is paired with other, more serious offenses such as bribery, murder or the use of physical force against witnesses, law enforcement officers or court officials, as these acts are often part of the process of obstruction.
Typically, those guilty of obstruction perform these criminal acts with the intent of influencing, delaying or preventing a criminal investigation (involving themselves or a close associate) or of influencing, delaying or preventing court testimony or the presentation of evidence in a legal proceeding.
Essentially, obstruction of justice laws exist at the federal, state and local levels to protect the integrity of legal proceedings and those individuals who participate in them.
Who Obstructs Justice?
Anyone who interferes with a criminal investigation, or a criminal or civil trial, can be charged with obstruction of justice. However, its use as a criminal charge made against public officials—judges, prosecutors, attorneys general and elected officials—is arguably more well known.
In fact, the phrase will often be used in connection with charges of corruption against elected officials—particularly mayors and city council members at the local level, governors and state legislators at the state level, and the president and members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives at the federal level—whether these cases are under investigation or have been taken to trial.
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Notably, public officials may face obstruction of justice charges if they are found to have lied to investigators in a criminal inquiry, even in cases in which they were not suspects.
Richard Nixon and Obstruction of Justice
Perhaps the most famous charge of obstruction of justice made against a public official involved the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. The U.S. House of Representatives passed three articles of impeachment against Nixon, one of which was for obstruction of justice for his efforts to cover-up the Watergate scandal.
The other two articles of impeachment against Nixon were for abuse of power and defiance of subpoenas, but Nixon resigned in August 1974 before he could be tried on these charges by the U.S. Senate.
In cases involving politicians such as Nixon, one aspect of obstruction of justice that can be challenging for prosecutors bringing the charges involves the issue of “misleading conduct,” which can include deliberately lying or leaving out facts crucial to a legal case (this is called “material omissions”) as well as knowingly presenting false or misleading physical evidence (for example, documents or photographs) to a judge or jury during legal proceedings to intentionally impact their deliberations. Misleading conduct can be difficult to prove.
Bill Clinton’s Impeachment
Famously, in the late 1990s, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr attempted to charge former President Bill Clinton with obstruction of justice by accusing the latter of denying to friends and subordinates that he had had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, in hopes (according to Starr) that they would repeat the denials to the grand jury investigating the matter.
The House of Representatives voted to charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice, and the matter was sent to the U.S. Senate for trial.
In the end, Starr wasn’t able to prove the charges, the Senate failed to muster enough votes to find him guilty, and Clinton finished out his term in office.
‘Scooter’ Libby’s Conviction
More recently, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff for former Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of obstruction of justice, among other charges, in 2007.
Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine; however, then-President George W. Bush later commuted the prison sentence, though the charges still remain on the former aide’s record.