What Is Obstruction of Justice?

You can’t turn on the news these days without hearing something about President Trump and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Whatever your political leanings, it can be unsettling to hear people talk about high-ranking officials, including the president, interfering with a criminal investigation.

The media has tossed around phrases like “obstruction of justice,” but what does this mean, exactly? Here’s a brief overview of obstruction of justice and what could happen if you’re charged with it.

What Is Obstruction of Justice? answered by Dallas defense attorney John Helms

Obstruction of Justice Defined

As the New York Times points out in their article, “What is Obstruction of Justice? An Often Murky Crime Explained,” obstruction of justice is something of a “murky” crime. This is because there are several federal statutes that address it.

Furthermore, not all behaviors that constitute obstruction of justice are clear-cut or concrete. In many cases, it’s up to prosecutors to prove that an individual’s actions or behavior were intended to interfere with, obstruct, or quell an investigation or criminal proceeding.

For example, obstruction of justice can be definitive in certain cases — destroying evidence like recordings (as Nixon did in the Watergate Scandal) or killing a witness. These are clear and obvious examples of someone willfully and intentionally getting in the way of the criminal justice system for their own benefit.

In other cases, however, things are less black and white. In the Comey firing case, many have pointed out that the president has the discretion and authority to hire and fire government officials. It’s part of the job description.

The issue boils down to what motivated the firing. As the article states, “Obstruction of justice cases often come down to whether prosecutors can prove defendants’ mental state when they committed the act…” In other words, prosecutors must find evidence of a specific intention to impede a criminal investigation or other proceeding.

This means that a person — whether a president or a regular citizen — can do something that’s perfectly legal, but if they undertake the action with the intent to interfere with the law, they can be charged with obstruction of justice.


What If You Are Charged with Obstruction of Justice?

Obstruction of justice is a charge that’s usually partnered with a list of other charges. However, in some cases prosecutors charge an individual with obstruction of justice if they don’t have enough evidence to file charges for other crimes. In either case, it’s imperative to work with an experienced criminal defense lawyer if you’re facing an obstruction of justice charge. The penalties for a conviction are serious and could cost you your freedom.

Obstruction of justice is a serious charge, but it’s also a “murky” one, which means prosecutors have a tough job. If there are holes in their case, an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can find them.