Currently, there appears to be two separate legal investigations happening at the White House. The first investigation is attempting to discover whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election. The second legal investigation involves the actions of Trump and his staff after he was elected President and is attempting to discover whether Trump’s firing of then FBI Director James Comey was actually an attempt to stop the investigation into possible collusion. Although it has received somewhat less attention, obstruction of justice is actually a very serious accusation. Two former presidents have been impeached or forced to resign from the office for the offense. In 1974, Richard Nixon was forced to resign after his attempts to hinder the Watergate investigations, and more recently, Bill Clinton was impeached by the House after lying to a grand jury about a sexual relationship with a White House employee. As is often the case, attempts to cover up possible wrong doings can lead to more serious consequences than the actual crime alleged to have been committed.
Obstruction of justice covers a broad set of actions all of which are intended to impede an official investigation. Those actions are criminalized by Federal Law in multiple sections of Title 18, all of which have some variation language making it a crime for someone to corruptly obstruct, influence or impede any official proceeding. While the catchall language is broad, specific actions like killing a witness, lying to investigators or destroying evidence is also contained within the statutes.
The questions currently be investigated are whether President Trump’s asking former director Comey to stop the investigation and then by later firing him be a criminal act covered by obstruction of justice statutes. Because the statute covers such a broad range of actions, the power disparity in the relationship between President Trump and Comey could elevate the request to terminate the Russia investigation to a crime. Could President Trump’s firing of Comey constitute obstruction of justice even though the President had the legal authority to fire him? The answer to that question is also yes. Courts have routinely ruled that otherwise permissible acts can constitute obstruction of justice if they are done with nefarious intentions. For example, a federal appeals case from 1998 held that a lawyer who had filed legal complaints and motions against a government agent who was investigating an illegal gambling operation was properly convicted of obstructing justice. The Court ruled that the lawyer’s “nominally litigious related conduct” was unlawful solely because his real intent was “to safeguard his personal financial interest” in the illegal gambling operation.
Obstruction of justice cases can be difficult to prove, because they often hinge on whether prosecutors can prove the defendant’s state of mind at the time when the committed the act. It is not enough to merely show the accused knew the act would hinder an investigation, but rather, prosecutors must prove impeding the investigation was the specific purpose of the act. A person’s state of mind can obviously be a very difficult thing to prove. Interestingly, the underlying investigation that triggered an investigation charge does not have to result in criminal activity being uncovered for an individual to be guilty of obstruction of justice. Thus, President Trump could be found guilty of obstructing justice even if no evidence of collusion with Russia is found.
If you need a lawyer for a criminal State or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.