What Is Obstruction of Justice?

An obstruction of justice is a type of illegal interference with the law.
An obstruction of justice is a type of illegal interference with the law.

Obstruction of Justice is the legal term used to refer to a crime involving obstructing prosecutors or other government officials from getting the crucial information necessary to an ongoing investigation. In many jurisdictions outside of the US, the term has a wider definition which involves the offense of perverting the course of justice.

Statute Description

Obstruction of justice is explicitly defined and explained in a provision under Section 802 of Sarbanes-Oxley Act passed in 2002 in the US. The statute clearly states, “Whoever knowingly conceals, alters, covers up, falsifies, destroys, mutilates, or makes a false entry in any tangible object, document, or record, with the intent to obstruct, influence, or impede the proper administration or investigation of any matter within the jurisdiction of any agency or department of the United States filed under Title 11, shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both.” There are two criteria which investigators have to establish for one to be charged with obstruction of justice. A suspect can be charged if they knowingly carried out the obstruction for purposes of affecting an issue within the jurisdiction of any US agency or department or if they contemplated to conduct the obstructive act.

Legal Overview

According to the law, an individual is charged with obstruction of justice when it is discovered that the person is withholding information that is crucial to investigations or in the instance where it is realized that the person is lying to the investigators. However, there are few exceptions in instances where an individual chooses to remain silent if the person feels that providing information will amount to incriminating them, a right provided for in the United States Law in the Fifth Amendment. In such instances, a person can uphold their right to remain silent even when the investigators have served the subpoena to give their testimony under oath. A person can be charged with obstruction of justice if it is established that the person has tampered with, destroyed, or concealed physical evidence necessary in the case. Obstruction of justice can also be applied in a case where an individual refuses to assist prison authorities in their quest to capture escaped convicts or where a police officer voluntary aids in the escape of a convict or a suspect.

Notable Examples

The charges of obstruction of justice are also applicable to government officials including politicians, prosecutors, judges, attorney generals, and even the President of the United States. President Richard Nixon is perhaps the highest government official to be investigated for obstruction of justice. The president was investigated to establish his role in the cover-up of the breaking-in of the Watergate Hotel in 1972 during campaigns for his re-election. Investigators claimed that while the president did not play an active role in the break-in, after knowing of the incident, he paid participants for their silence on the matter. However, President Nixon was never convicted of the charge. Lewis Libby, the former Vice-President Cheney’s adviser, was the highest government official to be charged and convicted of obstruction of justice when he was found guilty for his role in a leak of CIA information to the media.


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