obstruction of justice

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Obstruction of justice broadly refers to actions by individuals that illegally prevent or influence the outcome of a government proceeding. While the quintessential example of obstruction of justice involves tampering in a judicial proceeding, there are numerous laws on obstruction of justice, covering all branches of government and targeting different kinds of obstruction. Instead of one law, law on obstruction of justice is located in multiple federal and state statutes, given the numerous methods in which obstruction can be carried out. 

While varying greatly, each obstruction of justice statute typically requires proof that the defendant 1) knew of a government proceeding and 2) acted with the intent to interfere with the proceeding. Here are a few of the most important federal obstruction of justice statutes:

  • Obstruction of Jurors and Court Officers 18 U.S.C. § 1503: makes it illegal for someone to “corruptly” or through threats or force influence a juror or officer of the court in carrying out their duties before a judicial proceeding. The punishment for this crime can reach over 20 years imprisonment in the most extreme cases.
  • Obstructing Witnesses and Evidence 18 U.S.C. § 1512: makes it illegal in any way to harm, threaten, delay, or otherwise influence a witness to an official proceeding, punishable by up to 30 years imprisonment. The law also makes it a crime to destroy, change, or hide evidence that could be used in an official proceeding. 
  • Obstruction of Congressional and Agency Proceedings 18 U.S.C. § 1505: makes it illegal for someone to “corruptly” or through threats or force influence any proceeding or inquiry in Congress or by a federal agency. The law also makes it illegal to obstruct documents and other evidence given in response to inquiries under the Antitrust Civil Process Act. The punishment of this crime can lead to up to 5 years imprisonment. 

Other statutes and laws can be relevant to obstructing justice such as bribery or contempt of court. Generally, both officials and judges take seriously and vigorously prosecute attempts by individuals to corruptly interfere with proceedings, regardless of the method. 

[Last updated in April of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]