Obstruction occurs when a person purposefully makes it more difficult for a prosecutor or law enforcement official to gather evidence or further a case. There are many different ways to obstruct a criminal investigation. People might do this for a variety of reasons, including to preserve their own innocence or to help another guilty party. If you have been accused of obstructing a criminal investigation, you should get in contact with a lawyer.
You might be surprised by what counts as criminal obstruction. Many people find themselves charged with this even when they engaged in well-meaning actions. For example, maybe a law enforcement official asks you about the actions of a coworker. You find out that they are the subject of a federal investigation. If you then warn your coworker about the investigation, you might be considered a participant in obstruction.
Instead of having one statute related to criminal obstruction, there are obstruction laws that govern different types of regulations. For example, there are different laws for obstructing a health and safety investigation than for obstructing an investigation into potential financial crime. This can make it confusing to understand when an actual crime has been committed.
As a general rule, you have committed criminal obstruction if you interfere with a criminal investigation. This might be something as simple as warning a coworker, or it might be something as complex as actively destroying evidence. There is a broad range of actions that can be covered under federal and state laws.
Some people, like the one who warns their coworker about an investigation, might be shocked to learn that they have committed a crime. It can be anxiety-inducing to need to keep secrets from someone who is the target of a criminal investigation. But doing so is the best way to make sure that you aren’t charged yourself.
There are other cases in which it’s much more obvious that a crime has been committed. For example, it’s illegal to destroy evidence that prosecutors might use in their case against someone. The punishment for the crime will vary depending on how serious the obstruction is. Some sentencing might just be a slap on the wrist, while other cases might carry prison sentences of several years.
One common type of obstruction is when you aid a suspect. Sometimes people who are accused of crimes will go to their loved ones to seek shelter. If you harbor an individual who is a fugitive from the authorities, you can be charged with a crime. If you warn someone that police are looking for them, you can be charged with a crime. Doing this makes it easier for them to evade justice and lie low.
Obvious obstruction is when you clearly intend to interfere with an investigation, such as when you hide a suspect or destroy evidence. One of the most famous cases in recent years involved a woman who claimed to have burned paintings worth millions of dollars after her sons stole them. Burning the paintings was meant to get rid of evidence so that her sons would not be charged. This was especially serious because the paintings meant a great deal to the art community in addition to being evidence.
Another type of obstruction is lying. You cannot lie to the police when you are questioned during an investigation. You can tell the police that you don’t want to answer questions until you talk to your lawyer. Doing this is the smartest move, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. It allows your lawyer to advise you of your rights and make sure that the police follow procedure. It also helps keep you from accidentally obstructing justice without realizing what you’re doing.
If you lie while giving information to a judge or grand jury, you might also be charged with perjury. Perjury isn’t the only type of obstruction of justice you can commit, though. Other types of lies include lies during interviews, lying in written documents, and creating false documents or evidence to impede an investigation.
Any type of evidence tampering can be considered an obstruction of justice. In addition to destroying evidence, you might be charged if you alter or change the evidence. This might include actions such as falsifying account records so that the investigators don’t notice red flags. It might also include more physical actions, like the woman who burned the paintings stolen by her sons.
Another type of obstruction is witness tampering. This occurs when someone interferes with the witnesses during a trial or investigation. You might bribe, coerce, threaten, or do anything that impedes their ability to give truthful testimony. Even if the witness isn’t affected by the attempt, you will still be guilty because you tried to influence their testimony. Penalties for this can be serious.
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