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Obstruction of Justice
A criminal offense that involves interference, through words or actions, with the proper operations of a court or officers of the court.
The integrity of the judicial system depends on the participants' acting honestly and without fear of reprisals. Threatening a judge, trying to bribe a witness, or encouraging the destruction of evidence are examples of obstruction of justice. Federal and state laws make it a crime to obstruct justice.
Obstruction of justice in the federal courts is governed by a series of criminal statutes (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1501–1517), which aim to protect the integrity of federal judicial proceedings as well as agency and congressional proceedings. Section 1503 is the primary vehicle for punishing those who obstruct or who endeavor to obstruct federal judicial proceedings.
Section 1503 proscribes obstructions of justice aimed at judicial officers, grand and petit jurors, and witnesses. The law makes it a crime to threaten, intimidate, or retaliate against these participants in a criminal or civil proceeding. In addition, section 1503 makes it illegal to attempt the bribery of an official to alter the outcome of a judicial proceeding.
Besides these specific prohibitions, section 1503 contains the Omnibus Clause, which states that a person who "corruptly or by threats of force, or by threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice" is guilty of the crime of obstruction of justice. This clause offers broad protection to the "due administration of justice." Federal courts have read this clause expansively to proscribe any conduct that interferes with the judicial process.
To obtain a conviction under section 1503, the government must prove that there was a pending federal judicial proceeding, the defendant knew of the proceeding, and the defendant had corrupt intent to interfere with or attempted to interfere with the proceeding.
Two types of cases arise under the Omnibus Clause: the concealment, alteration, or destruction of documents; and the encouraging or rendering of false testimony. Actual obstruction is not needed as an element of proof to sustain a conviction. The defendant's endeavor to obstruct justice is sufficient. "Endeavor" has been defined by the courts as an effort to accomplish the purpose the statute was enacted to prevent. The courts have consistently held that "endeavor" constitutes a lesser threshold of purposeful activity than a criminal "attempt."
Federal obstruction of justice statutes have been used to prosecute government officials who have sought to prevent the disclosure of damaging information. The Watergate scandal of the 1970s involving President Richard M. Nixon is a classic example of this type of obstruction. A number of Nixon's top aides were convicted of obstruction of justice, including former attorney general john n. mitchell.A federal grand jury named Nixon himself as an unindicted coconspirator for the efforts to prevent disclosure of White House involvement in the 1972 burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building complex in Washington, D.C.
Roush, Corey, and Rishi Varma. 1996. "Obstruction of Justice." American Criminal Law Review 33 (spring).