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.)