Obstruction of Justice

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Obstruction of Justice

Several federal statutes provide for the crime of obstruction of justice.  The federal obstruction laws are generally codified at 18 U.S.C. section 1501 through 1520.  The catch-all clause of 18 U.S.C. § 1503(a)—the most-commonly-charged obstruction statute—prohibits an individual from “corruptly … endeavor[ing] to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

Several of the more prominent obstruction statutes are listed below:

  • 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of pending Congressional or federal administrative proceedings)
  • 18 U.S.C. 1512 (witness tampering)
  • 18 § U.S.C. 1503 (omnibus clause)1

What is Obstruction? 

Obstruction of justice is, generally, an intentional effort to interfere with a government investigation or prosecution of a crime or enforcement of the laws.

The omnibus clauses.

Section 1503

The omnibus or catch-all clause of 18 U.S.C. § 1503(a) is the most-commonly-charged clause.  The omnibus clause prohibits an individual from “corruptly … endeavor[ing] to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”  In order to sustain a conviction under § 1503(a), the Government must establish beyond a reasonable doubt: “(1) that a judicial proceeding was pending; (2) that the defendant had knowledge of the judicial proceeding; and (3) that the defendant acted corruptly with the specific intent to influence, obstruct, or impede that judicial proceeding in its due administration of justice.”

Section 1503(a)imposes “a ‘nexus’ requirement”—the act must have a relationship in time, causation, or logic with the judicial proceeding. In other words, the endeavor must have the ‘natural and probable effect’ of interfering with the due administration of justice.  As a result, the defendant must have “‘knowledge that his actions are likely to affect the judicial proceeding,’ as opposed to some ancillary proceeding, such as an investigation independent of the court’s or grand jury’s authority.”

Section 1505

The omnibus clause of 18 U.S.C. § 1505 parallels its counterpart in 18 U.S.C. § 1503 in language and purpose.  Generally, a defendant violates § 1505 if three elements are present:

(1) there was a proceeding pending before a department or agency of the United States;

(2) the defendant knew of or had a reasonably founded belief that the proceeding was pending; and

(3) the defendant corruptly endeavored to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law under which the proceeding was pending.

Notably, § 1505 requires a corrupt state of mind.

Investigations by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) constitute a § 1505 proceeding.

As with § 1503, in order to obtain a conviction under section 1505’s Omnibus Clause, the Government must demonstrate (among other things) that there is a “nexus” between the defendant’s conduct and a particular administrative proceeding, such as an investigation, an audit, or other targeted administrative action. That nexus requires a “relationship in time, causation, or logic with the [administrative] proceeding.”

What are Some Examples of Obstruction?   

Defendants have been convicted of violating § 1505, for example, for engaging in the following conduct:

  • Concealing documents responsive to an IRS subpoena;
  • Submitting inaccurate information in response to a government inquiry;
  • Making a false statement to a government investigator;
  • Providing false documents to a government agent;
  • Making a false statement to an IRS agent.




[1] Even where not charged as a crime, obstruction of justice may result in a sentence enhancement under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines where a defendant engages in obstructive conduct.