When you hear the term “obstruction of justice,” you may think of a well-orchestrated conspiracy to cover up a crime. In fact, this form of wrongdoing can be as simple as lying to authorities, asking, coercing or bribing someone else to lie for you or anything else that hampers the government in the investigation of a crime.
Obstruction of justice is a federal crime, but the same type of offense, that may bear a different name, is typically prosecutable as a state crime as well. Here in New York, we have a law that covers “obstruction of governmental administration,” which is a Class A misdemeanor. We also have witness tampering and other statutes that cover interference with a criminal investigation.
Americans have a constitutional right not to answer authorities’ questions if the answers could incriminate them. There are also marital, attorney-client, therapist and religious privileges that give some people the right to refuse to disclose confidential communications. However, if you decide to answer questions (verbally or in writing) and knowingly make false statements to officers, investigators or prosecutors, that’s a criminal offense.
The lesson of Martha Stewart
Lifestyle maven Martha Stewart spent five months in federal prison with additional time spent via home detention and probation after being found guilty of obstruction of justice for making false statements to federal authorities. The investigation involved a stock sale she made based on information she was given that hadn’t been publicly disclosed. Federal penalties for this crime can include years in prison.
Obstruction of justice charges often involve interfering with witnesses, as noted. They can also involve tampering with, hiding or destroying evidence. This offense can involve something as simple as altering or shredding documents, throwing something in the garbage or deleting an Internet search history.
If you are being investigated for committing a crime or you are asked to provide information about a crime, it’s always wise to have legal guidance. This can help you protect your rights and avoid worsening any legal jeopardy you may already be facing.