In the season 4 finale of Breaking Bad entitled ” Face Off,” Walt (the retired chemistry teacher and master meth cook) has just killed local drug kingpin Gus and realizes the DEA is on his tracks. He meets with Jesse (his former student turned assistant chef) and they decide to burn down the super meth lab (along with a few bodies) to cover up the evidence against them. Walt and Jesse’s actions are a perfect example, though somewhat spectacular, of obstruction of justice. But, unlike the drama of T.V., the crime of obstruction of justice can have very real and very serious consequences.
The offense of obstruction of justice is set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 1501 through § 1521 and prohibits conduct that thwarts, impedes, influences, or obstructs and investigation or legal proceeding. A charge of obstruction usually occurs when a federal agency like the I.R.S. or SEC conducts an investigation of alleged tax fraud or insider trading and its agents or staff lawyers begin to interview suspected targets/subjects of said investigation or seek the production of documents, records, or computers through the issuance of subpoenas.
Under 18 U.S.C. § 1505, federal law prohibits an individual from intentionally impeding a federal investigation by lying to agents or, for example, failing to turn over computers or documents that have been requested under a subpoena as part of investigation.
Perhaps the most famous case of obstruction of justice involved well-known television personality, writer, and business woman Martha Stewart who was indicted federally under 18 U.S.C. § 1505 related to her sale of ImClone stick in 2001. According to the SEC, Stewart avoided a loss of $45,673 by selling 4,000 shares of ImClone stock after receiving material, non-public information from her broker that the stock was likely to drop.
Interestingly, Stewart was never charged with Insider trading but, rather, was convicted of obstruction and making false statements to SEC lawyers during their investigation of the ImClone matter. Specifically, the evidence in Court showed that Stewart lied to investigators by telling them that she and her stockbroker planned to sell ImClone stock when it reached a certain agreed price and further obstructed justice by altering a phone message from the broker in her assistant’s computer.
Most individuals charged with obstruction of justice under 18 U.S.C. § 1505 are also charged with making false statements in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, which prohibits “lying” to government officials that are conducting federal investigations.
As with all federal offenses, a person convicted of obstruction of justice will be sentenced under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. U.S.S.G. § 2J1.2, applies to obstruction of justice and begins with a Base Offense Level of 14. Unfortunately, the guideline provision also contains numerous enhancements based specifically on the defendant’s behavior and the actions taken to impede the investigation or administration of justice. For example, if the court finds that a “substantial” number of records, documents, or tangible objects were destroyed, altered or fabricated, a sentence can be enhanced. However, in most instances, the statutory maximum prison sentence for obstruction under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1501-1521 is a term of not more than 5 years.
Prosecutors and law enforcement vigorously pursue these offenses due to their view that the prohibited conduct undermines the integrity of the justice system. Often times individuals are contacted and speak with federal investigators without first contacting counsel. People fail to understand that they are not required to speak with investigators especially if they are the target of an investigation. But, if they talk, their statements must be truthful and not made with the intent of covering up wrong doing or to mislead federal agents conducting the investigation. Again, lying to or misleading federal agents that are conducting an investigation is a federal crime and punishable by a prison sentence.
If contacted by agents conducting a federal investigation, contact criminal defense attorney Joe Edwards at 614-309-0243.