A bank teller is called into a conference room where a federal agent asks her some questions about a coworker. Based on the questions, the teller gathers that her coworker is under investigation for defrauding a bank customer. After leaving the interview, the teller sends a text to the coworker to warn him about the investigation. She’s doing a good deed by watching her coworker’s back, right?
Wrong. Her heart may be in the right place, but it could end up, with the rest of her, in jail or prison for committing criminal obstruction.
What is Criminal Obstruction?
Congress and state legislatures have written obstruction provisions into many different laws (for example, financial regulations, health and safety laws, and antitrust laws). As a result, there is no single “criminal obstruction” statute to look to. However, there are certain shared features of all of these provisions.
Generally speaking, a person commits criminal obstruction by engaging in any act that interferes with the investigation or prosecution of a crime. As defined by state and federal laws, such interference covers a lot of ground, from warning someone about a subpoena for documents to hiding a suspect from the authorities.
Many Ways to Obstruct
Certain types of interference may seem innocent or even kind (such as the teller warning her coworker), while others cross the legal line more obviously (such as destroying evidence). The greater the obstruction of justice the more severe the punishment for committing criminal obstruction.
Aiding a suspect
The lover or relative who helps a loved one accused of a crime hide from the cops is obstructing justice and can be charged. Even warning a coworker of an ongoing investigation (as in the above example) is probably obstruction because it gives the person under investigation a chance to destroy evidence, go on the lam, or even just prepare an alibi.
Hiding a suspect or helping to get rid of incriminating evidence is obvious obstruction. An example of such obstruction has gotten international media attention: A Romanian woman confessed to the media to burning several paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse, and other masters that her sons allegedly stole. She said she put the paintings in her oven in order to destroy the evidence of her sons’ crimes. (The woman later recanted, but was criminally charged.) If the mother did, in fact, burn the paintings, she would have engaged in criminal obstruction of justice under U.S. law.
Anyone who lies to authorities when questioned in the course of a criminal investigation commits obstruction of justice. (18 U.S.C. § 1505.) This includes lying in written answers to interrogatories, falsifying documents, and other means of delivering false information to investigators.
Giving false information to investigators also may be perjury if the misinformation is given in a grand jury proceeding or other setting where the person giving the false information has been placed under oath. For more information about perjury, see Perjury: Laws and Penalties.
Tampering with evidence
Anyone who intentionally destroys, alters, or otherwise tampers with physical evidence in a criminal investigation may be charged with obstruction of justice. For example, if the teller in the example above had doctored the customer’s account to hide the coworker’s misdeeds, she would have again committed obstruction of justice. (This obstruction would be more severe than simply warning the coworker of the investigation and would lead to greater punishment.)
Witness tampering is also a form of obstruction of justice. Anyone who threatens, coerces, tries to bribe, or otherwise attempts to interfere with a witness’s truthful testimony is guilty. (18 U.S.C. § 1510.)
The penalty a person guilty of criminal obstruction could face depends upon the law under which the person was convicted. The penalties under state and federal laws range from misdemeanors to felonies. For example, a person who bribes or attempts to bribe a witness in a federal investigation may face up to five years in a federal penitentiary, a fine, or both. (18 U.S.C. § 1510.)
See a Lawyer
Even a person not directly involved in a crime under investigation may be charged with criminal obstruction. If you have been charged with criminal obstruction or have questions about the crime, consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer.