Saturday, February 7, 2004

Q&A: Obstruction of justice

Question: What is obstruction of justice?

Answer: Generally, it's considered any act that is intended to interfere with the administration of justice. There are many different kinds of obstruction of justice that are covered by different statutes. An article on the Ohio State Bar Association's Web site notes that separate federal statutes cover obstruction of court orders, obstruction of criminal investigations, obstruction of state and local law enforcement of gambling statutes, and tampering with or retaliating against witnesses, victims and informants.

Q.: What sorts of acts might constitute obstruction of justice?

A.: Obstruction isn't limited to use of physical force, bribery, intimidation against witnesses, law enforcement officers or court officials. It also can consist of any attempt to hinder the discovery, apprehension, conviction or punishment of anyone who has committed a crime. The purpose of such acts can include influencing, delaying or preventing the communication of information to law enforcement officers, as well as altering or destroying documents. In the Erpenbeck case, the alleged goal of the obstruction was to influence, delay or prevent court testimony.

Q.: How often is this charge used?

A.: Not infrequently, especially where a conspiracy is alleged. (Conspiracy is difficult to prove.) For example, Martha Stewart is on trial for obstruction of justice, accused of trying to cover up her actions involving the trading of ImClone stock. Arthur Andersen, once one of the nation's largest accounting firms, shrank dramatically after being convicted of obstruction of justice (primarily the destruction of documents) in connection with the collapse of Enron. And it also was the underlying legal principle in the impeachment of President Clinton.

Q.: What is the penalty for obstruction?

A.: Generally, the sentence is up to five years in prison. But if an obstruction occurs in connection with the trial of a federal criminal case, the penalty for a conviction goes up. In the Erpenbeck case, the sentence could be up to 20 years for a conviction.

Source: Ohio State Bar Association, Enquirer research

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