President Richard Nixon's Case
On July 27, 1974, President Nixon was charged for obstruction of justice, as he had refused to release the White House recordings, thus holding back crucial information about the Watergate Scandal from investigators.
While President Nixon's case happens to be one of the oft-cited examples, there is no dearth of high-profile cases of obstruction of justice. President Bill Clinton had a narrow escape in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal, when fifty senators voted in favor of his removal on the charge of obstructing justice; seventeen short of the required two-thirds majority. Similarly, in March 2004, American businesswoman, Martha Stewart was found guilty on four counts of obstructing justice. The conviction of former American baseball player, Barry Bonds, on April 13, 2011, is one of the more recent examples of obstruction of justice.
Despite these and other such examples, it would be naive to say that this crime is restricted to people in power, or the 'rich and famous' as one can put it. If the authorities call you in for questioning about a financial fraud allegedly involving your acquaintance, and you decide to be a good Samaritan and warn him about the said investigation the moment you step out, then you can be held guilty for obstruction of justice. And this, mind you, is just one of the many ways you, or anyone for that matter, can end up on the wrong side of law.
What Does Obstruction of Justice Mean?
By definition, it's a criminal offense wherein an individual, who is not the convict, interferes with the legal process by misleading the authorities by his words or actions. Simply put, any intentional interference with the due process of the law. However, to be held guilty, the person should be aware of the ongoing investigation. The principle statutes of crime related to obstruction of justice have been enlisted in Chapter 73 of United States Code, Title 18, Section 1501 to 1518.
Of these statutes, Section 1503 is an omnibus clause which targets whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede the due administration of justice. Similarly, Section 1512 deals with witness tampering and Section 1513 with witness retaliation.
In accordance to these statutes, an individual can be held guilty for obstruction of justice for lying or providing false information during questioning by a federal investigator, which is what Martha Stewart did when she lied to federal investigators during the investigation of the ImClone stock trading case, or for destroying or tampering with the evidence, or even holding it back from investigators, like President Nixon did.
Besides that, hiding a suspect (regardless of whether he is innocent) and influencing a witness, victim, informant, judge, prosecutor, or any investigator by bribing or intimidating him can also amount to obstructing justice.
Invoking the Right to Remain Silent
The right to remain silent (i.e., the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) does allow the person to not answer questions, especially if he has strong reasons to believe that doing so will make him vulnerable to criminal liability. (That's unless the court or concerned agency invokes subpoena, in which case, not answering the summon may amount to contempt of court.) If, however, he chooses to answer and provides false information, then he can be held guilty.
Depending on the type of proceeding and area of jurisdiction, the obstruction can be considered a felony or misdemeanor. Usually, obstruction of justice in federal investigation amounts to felony, while the same in the case of investigation by local authorities amounts to misdemeanor; that's unless the matter is serious, in which case, the act will be considered a felony regardless of whether it's a federal investigation or a state affair.
Depending on whether it's a felony or misdemeanor, and jurisdiction, a person convicted for obstruction of justice can face a specific term in prison, fine, or both. A first-time offender usually receives a fine. If the case is serious though, then the convict may be sentenced to a specific time in prison even for his first offense.