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Federal law on obstructing justice: a summary

by Sami Azhari on January 12, 2011

Obstruction of justice is a felony under federal law. While obstruction of justice is often charged as a state law offense, the matter becomes a federal charge where it involves a federal court proceeding or the federal government.

The federal statutes criminalizing obstruction of justice are found in Title 18, United States Code, Chapter 73. Federal law has no less than 21 separate and distinct provisions for obstruction of justice.

These offenses include obstructing or assaulting a process server (18 USC 1501), obstructing an extradition agent (18 USC 1502), influencing a juror in writing (18 USC 1504), theft or alteration of a record or process (18 USC 1506), demonstrating outside the residence of a judge, juror, or other officer of the court (18 USC 1507), listening in on grand jury proceedings (18 USC 1508), obstructing the execution of a court order (18 USC 1509), notifying a person about a forthcoming subpoena (18 USC 1510), obstructing for the purpose of illegal gambling (18 USC 1511), witness tampering (18 USC 1512), retaliating against a witness (18 USC 1513), etc.

18 USC 1503 is the most common obstruction charge. The statute has two prongs, one concerning obstruction by attempting to influence jurors or officers in a judicial proceeding, and another that concerns obstruction of the “due administration of justice.”

The first prong applies only to conduct directed at jurors or officers in a judicial proceeding. The term “jurors” includes potential jurors in any case, and “officers” has been interpreted to include federal judges.

It is illegal to “corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, [attempt] to influence, intimidate, or impede” any juror or officer in connection with his or her duties in a federal case.

The second prong, by comparison, is not restricted to ‘in connection with his or her duties in a federal case.’ The second prong of the obstruction of justice statute applies to any conduct that affects the “due administration of justice.” As such, this type of obstruction is very broad. The statute prohibits any activity that “corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

It seems there is an unlimited number of scenarios that could constitute obstruction of the due administration of justice, such as falsifying or destroying records, providing false information, etc.

If a person obstructs justice by influencing or attempting to influence a juror in a criminal case by force or threat of physical force, he faces additional penalties. In these circumstances, the sentence for obstruction must be the maximum that could be imposed for the most serious criminal charge that is on trial.

18 USC 1503 is a felony offense for which the sentence can be 10 years imprisonment.

A parallel provision concerning the “due administration of justice” is 18 USC 1505. This statute applies not to judicial proceedings, but rather to any proceeding before an administrative agency, department, or committee of the United State, including Congress. It applies to investigative demands from federal departments, including subpoenas, and inquiries by the House of Representatives, but not civil or criminal trials in US District Courts.

The potential penalty for his offense is a maximum of 5 years in federal prison and 8 years where the facts of the case relate to terrorism.

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