When authorities investigate federal offenses, they expect those they interview to be honest and forthright. Otherwise, they can waste a good deal of time and resources going down the wrong paths and failing to investigate the right people.
That’s why there are serious penalties for what’s considered “obstruction of justice” – including time in federal prison. In fact, sometimes it’s easier for prosecutors to get a conviction of obstruction charges than on other federal charges.
Just ask Martha Stewart. Although she was charged with a number of offenses involving insider trading, she was ultimately found guilty of obstruction of justice and making false statements to federal investigators. She went to prison for five months.
Types of obstruction of justice
There are various types of obstruction of justice under federal law. It can involve interfering with the investigation of a crime. This might involve concealment or destruction of evidence or tampering with evidence. It could also involve threatening or bribing a witness.
Interfering with court proceedings also falls into the category of obstruction of justice. This might involve threatening or bribing a judge or juror, for example. Jury tampering is an example most people are familiar with.
Of course, lying to federal investigators or agents is also illegal, as Ms. Stewart learned. The severity of the consequences for that depends on how “material” or relevant the lies are to the case.
How federal law defines it
Federal law defines obstruction of justice as an action 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.” That gives prosecutors a pretty wide berth to file charges if they choose to.
This is why if you know – or even believe – you may be under federal investigation and certainly if you’re being questioned or charged with a crime, it’s crucial to seek legal guidance. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, you don’t want to deal with federal agents or investigators on your own.