Obstruction of Justice

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As the current edition of North Carolina Crimes explains, “[o]bstructing justice consists of any act that prevents, obstructs, impedes, or hinders public or legal justice, and it may take many forms.” Jessica Smith, North Carolina Crimes 451 (6th ed. 2007). The breadth of this common-law offense was recently highlighted by the court of appeals in State v. Wright.

In a nutshell, the defendant was a state representative who filed inaccurate campaign finance reports, failing to disclose approximately $150,000 in contributions received and $77,000 in transfers from his campaign account to his personal account. He was charged with, and convicted of, felony obstruction of justice. He appealed, arguing that “because he filed all of the campaign finance disclosure reports before any criminal investigation or legal proceedings had begun, there could be no obstruction of justice.”

The court of appeals rejected this argument. It relied in part on the civil case of Henry v. Deen, 310 N.C. 75 (1984), in which the court stated that tampering with medical records in an attempt to avoid a medical malpractice suit would constitute obstruction of justice. The court of appeals reasoned that Wright “deliberately hindered the ability of the [State Board of Elections] and the public to investigate and uncover . . . whether defendant was complying with campaign finance laws. . . . Further, his false reports concealed illegal campaign activity from public exposure and possible investigation.” In other words, the court adopted a broad interpretation of obstruction of justice that includes activity designed to prevent an investigation from beginning as well as activity designed to frustrate or evade an existing investigation.

The Wright court didn’t explore the outer limits of this principle, and I wonder what they are. For example, if a defendant runs a Ponzi investment scheme, sending bogus account statements to his victims, has he obstructed justice because the statements were designed to prevent the victims from complaining or investigating? If a bank robber removes the license plates from his car before a robbery, to make it more difficult for witnesses to identify his car, has he obstructed justice? When a murderer throws the murder weapon in a river to make it impossible for police to recover, has he “blocked an[] investigation”? How about a drug suspect who throws away his drugs while running from police? Cf. United States v. Sparks, 949 F.2d 1023 (8th Cir. 1991) (affirming application of sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice where the defendant threw away his drugs and warned his colleagues of the presence of police).

Perhaps some lines can be drawn, but it is also possible that obstruction of justice applies in many situations in which it is not typically charged. (AOC statistics for a recent year reveal that obstruction of justice was charged fewer than 200 times across the state.)

6 comments on “Obstruction of Justice

  1. In Henry v. Deen the Supreme Court ruled that obstruction of justice was not limited to interference in criminal matters, and held that making false and misleading medical records was obstruction of justice. No civil action was pending. Query, what about making false or incomplete responses to interrogatatories in a pending case?

  2. […] of the application of the broad interpretation to the actions of private individuals, see UNC School of Government’s Criminal Law Blog Posting on Wright. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. LikeBe the first to like […]

  3. […] (See UNC School of Gov. blog discussing implications for private actors). […]

  4. Both Governor Perdue and AG Roy Cooper’s campaign fund show undisclosed transfers of funds occurring over a decade, and over a million dollars in each fund.

    Sure is strange that the NC State Board of Elections Director and Chief Counsel haven’t noticed that both Perdue and Cooper’s campaign funds to not follow basic bookkeeping or GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles).

    I reported both accounts to the IRS and posted examples of their campaign reporting on the home page of http://carolinacrimereport.com.

  5. Here’s a link to a screenshot from Governor Perdue’s campaign report showing non-compliance. This screenshot shows loans totaling over $1 million made to Perdue’s campaign from undisclosed sources. I spoke to the NC SBE Director and Chief Counsel about this and they still haven’t investigated.

    http://carolinacrimereport.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/loansource.jpeg

  6. […] was indicted on two counts of felony buying and selling offices, felony obstructing justice (a common-law offense), misdemeanor primary/election violation, attempt to violate campaign contribution limits (which are […]

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