What is Obstruction of Justice? A Detailed Explanation

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Obstruction of Justice

Obstruction of justice is a term frequently mentioned in legal discussions, news reports, and political debates. It’s a concept that lies at the heart of the judicial system, ensuring that justice is administered fairly and without undue interference. Understanding what constitutes obstruction of justice is crucial, as it can have significant legal implications and affects the integrity of legal proceedings. This article aims to demystify the term, offering a clear and comprehensive overview of what obstruction of justice entails, its legal ramifications, and how it’s treated under both federal and state laws.

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Definition of Obstruction of Justice

Obstruction of justice refers broadly to any act that impedes the operation of the judicial system. This can include a wide array of actions, such as perjury, making false statements to officials, witness tampering, jury tampering, destruction of evidence, and coercion of court or government officials. The essence of obstruction is interference with the orderly administration of law and justice. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses various specific crimes, and it has been categorized as a process crime, a public-order crime, or a white-collar crime. The involvement can range from individuals like judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, to elected officials in general, reflecting the broad scope of activities that can constitute obstruction of justice.

Federal Law and Obstruction of Justice

Under federal law, obstruction of justice is defined in multiple statutes within Title 18 of the United States Code. These laws address specific acts of obstruction, including witness and jury tampering, destruction of evidence, and interference with court officers or government investigations. One of the most comprehensive provisions is the Omnibus Clause, which punishes anyone who “corruptly… endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” in a judicial proceeding. The penalties for these crimes can be severe, with sentences reaching up to 20 years imprisonment in extreme cases. Additionally, under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, a conviction for obstruction can lead to enhanced penalties, underscoring the seriousness with which such offenses are treated.

State Laws on Obstruction of Justice

State laws regarding obstruction of justice can vary widely in terms of definition and penalties. While all states have laws that prohibit specific types of obstruction, such as witness tampering, jury tampering, or destruction of evidence, the general statutes criminalizing obstruction of justice may differ. For example, a 2004 survey found that 24 states and the District of Columbia had general statutes similar to federal law, criminalizing obstruction of justice or obstruction of government functions in broad terms. These variations reflect the diverse approaches taken by different states in defining and prosecuting acts that impede the administration of justice. This diversity means that the legal consequences for similar actions can differ significantly depending on the state in which the offense occurs.

Historical Perspective

The concept of obstruction of justice has evolved over time, with its roots traceable to the early days of the federal court system. Originally, judges had the power to summarily punish those who obstructed justice by holding them in contempt of court. However, a scandal in 1830 involving Federal Judge James H. Peck, who imprisoned a lawyer for contempt for publishing a critical letter, led to significant reform. This reform limited the application of summary contempt procedures and created obstruction of justice as a separate offense. Over the years, there have been several legislative changes to the obstruction laws, such as the Victim and Witness Protection Act of 1982, which broadened the law against witness tampering and criminalized retaliation against witnesses. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 further strengthened the obstruction laws regarding the destruction of evidence.

Under federal law, a person convicted of obstruction of justice can face severe penalties. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines provide for an enhanced sentence if a defendant is found to have obstructed justice by impeding the investigation or prosecution of their crimes. While a separate conviction for obstruction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a finding of obstruction for sentencing purposes only needs to meet the standard of a preponderance of the evidence. This enhancement can add two levels to the offender’s sentence, potentially resulting in a significant increase in prison time. In 2017, for instance, the obstruction enhancement was applied in over 1,300 cases, representing a small but significant portion of all sentences issued in federal courts. This underscores the serious nature of obstruction offenses and the judiciary’s commitment to prosecuting such acts vigorously.

The complexity of obstruction of justice laws, both at the federal and state levels, highlights the importance of understanding these laws and their implications. The historical development and current application of these laws serve as a stark reminder of the legal system’s dedication to maintaining justice and integrity. The rigorous enforcement of these laws ensures that actions which could undermine the judicial process are dealt with appropriately, upholding the principles of fairness and due process that are foundational to the legal system in the United States.

Anticipatory Obstruction of Justice

The concept of Anticipatory Obstruction of Justice, a relatively new addition to the legal landscape, was introduced in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This federal law established new financial regulations to aid companies in being more transparent with their investors. Under this law, acts such as knowingly altering, destroying, or concealing any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct a federal investigation, even before it begins, are considered as anticipatory obstruction of justice. This expansion of the obstruction of justice law has been received with some controversy, as it lowers the burden of proof previously required from the government. Prosecutors must prove that the accused knowingly tried to obstruct a matter within the jurisdiction of a U.S. department or agency and that the accused acted “in relation to” or “in contemplation” of the matter.

Famous Case Study: Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States

A notable case involving obstruction of justice is Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, commonly referred to as the Enron scandal. This case is significant as it led to the downfall of one of the largest multinational companies, Arthur Andersen. The company, serving as the main auditor for Enron, was charged with obstruction of justice when it directed employees to destroy documents related to Enron amid a pending investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Despite the Supreme Court overturning Arthur Andersen’s conviction due to unclear jury instructions, the damage to the company’s reputation was irreversible, leading to its closure in the U.S. This case highlights the severe consequences of obstruction of justice and the importance of ethical corporate practices.


The concept of obstruction of justice is complex and multifaceted, encompassing a range of actions that can hinder the judicial process. From federal to state laws, the legal system takes these offenses seriously, imposing severe penalties to uphold the integrity of justice. The introduction of anticipatory obstruction and high-profile cases like Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States demonstrate the evolving nature of this legal concept and its significant impact on both individuals and corporations. Understanding obstruction of justice is crucial in appreciating the mechanisms in place to protect the fair administration of law and the ongoing efforts to ensure transparency and accountability within the judicial system.

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