Allegations of Obstruction Of Justice: What Must Be Proven?
The issue of obstruction of justice has been all over the news of late, covering the recent firing of ex-FBI Director James B. Comey by President Trump, along with coverage of the statement that the president asked Comey to shut down an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. But what is obstruction of justice, exactly?
Federal statutes define criminal obstruction of justice as taking actions that impede official investigations. Simply put, it’s the act of preventing authorities from investigating and applying the law. Examples include destroying evidence, hurting, killing, or otherwise retaliating against a witness, threatening a juror, and impeding a grand jury proceeding, amongst other, similar actions.
Motive Is Key
Given the power dynamics between a president and the director of the FBI, a request to shut down an investigation could, arguably, constitute obstruction of justice, as it does amount to impeding an official investigation. Courts have ruled that otherwise lawful actions can constitute obstruction of justice if those actions are done with corrupt intentions. In other words: if the real motive is corrupt, it can turn otherwise lawful conduct to unlawful conduct.
However, prosecuting individuals for obstruction of justice can be more complicated: it can often come down to whether prosecutors can prove whether or not the defendant’s motive was, in fact, corrupt. It is not enough to show that the defendant simply knew that their conduct could result in impeding an investigation.
In that sense, some criminal law experts have expressed doubts about whether the firing of Comey proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the president had an improper mental state. However, as in other cases, those accused of obstruction of justice can help build a case against themselves, which president Trump is arguably doing at this point in making various admissions.
In The Potential Case against the President
In potentially charging the president with obstruction of justice, Comey’s memos could specifically be very valuable in conducting an investigation. Yet while these memos might be considered documentation of one point of view, at the same time, Comey himself is now considered to be a witness, which is even stronger evidence.
Even if the president isn’t technically criminally convicted of obstruction of justice, the bar is lower for impeachment proceedings when it comes to obstruction of justice. For example, Richard Nixon was, of course, impeached in 1974 for telling the FBI to stop an investigation of his campaign (i.e. the Watergate scandal).
White Collar Crime Defense Attorney
Regardless of what type of specific evidence prosecutors have, simply being accused of obstruction of justice can be alarming, and white collar crimes like these can carry some severe penalties. Discussing your case with a criminal defense attorney right away is imperative in ensuring a case is not built against you. Contact the office of Phillip J. Murphy in New Jersey today to find out how we can help.