The crime of obstruction of justice, in United States jurisdictions, refers to the crime of obstructing prosecutors or other (usually government) officials. Common law jurisdictions other than the United States tend to use the wider offense of perverting the course of justice.
Generally, obstruction charges are laid when it is discovered that a person questioned in an investigation, other than a suspect, has lied to the investigating officers. However, in most common law jurisdictions, the right to remain silent used to allow any person questioned by police merely to deny answering questions posed by an investigator without giving any reason for doing so. (In such a case, the investigators may subpoena the witness to give testimony under oath in court, though the witness may then exercise their rights, for example in the Fifth Amendment, if they believe their answer may serve to incriminate themselves.) If the person willfully and knowingly tried to protect a suspect (such as by providing a false alibi) or to hide from investigation of their own activities (such as to hide their involvement in another crime), this may leave them liable to prosecution. Obstruction charges can also be laid if a person alters, destroys, or conceals physical evidence. Obstruction charges may also be laid in unique situations such as refusal to aid a police officer, escape through voluntary action of an officer and refusing to assist prison officers in arresting escaped convicts.
Obstruction can include crimes committed by judges, prosecutors, attorneys general, and elected officials in general. It is misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in the conduct of the office. Most commonly it is prosecuted as a crime for perjury by a non governmental official primarily because of prosecutorial discretion.
"Anticipatory obstruction of justice" has recently appeared on the horizon in cases such as US v. Wolff. However, the operative section, 1519, passed in 2002, has thus far languished in quasi-obscurity. Titled “Destruction, Alteration or Falsification of Records in Federal Investigations and Bankruptcy,” the provision was passed under Section 802 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
The text of the statute is relatively straightforward:
Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsified, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under Title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
Aside from Section 1519’s 20-year maximum prison sentence (no small benefit to the government in big-dollar fraud loss cases such as Wolff), its primary appeal is that it uniquely removes certain key proof burdens from prosecutors’ collective shoulders.
Prosecutors charging violations of Section 1519 must still establish both of the following:
Not on the list, however, is the requirement that prosecutors demonstrate to the finder of fact which specific “pending proceeding” the accused attempted to obstruct. That is a significant benefit to the government.