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What is Obstruction of a Criminal Investigation?

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Jan 24, 2022

Obstruction of a Federal Criminal Investigation Law - 18 U.S. C. § 1510

Federal law not only prohibits certain types of activities but also legally protects the investigation of such crimes.

If you interfere with an investigation in an attempt to hinder it, particularly by bribing a witness or alerting a financial or insurance client of a government subpoena of someone's records, you may be indicted right along with that person on the grounds of obstruction of criminal investigations.

Obstruction of Criminal Investigations - 18 U.S. C. § 1510
Obstruction of a criminal investigation can be charged as a federal crime with harsh penalties.

Section 1510 of Title 18 of the United States Code describes the federal offense of interfering with, obstructing, or frustrating a criminal investigation by bribery. 

The bribery distinction is essential to understand the behavior covered by 18 U.S. Code § 1510, as federal laws have separate provisions covering other ways to accomplish the same obstruction of justice. 

This federal law prohibits anyone from preventing a witness or victim from reporting a crime or cooperating with law enforcement agencies.

In other words, it's illegal to bribe somebody to delay or prevent them from giving information to law enforcement concerning an alleged crime.

For example, making a financial offer to a witness or victim to remain silent could be considered an obstruction of a criminal investigation.

However, to convict someone of obstruction of justice, a federal prosecutor will have to show the defendant acted with a specific intent to obstruct the course of a criminal investigation.

If convicted, the legal penalty for interfering with a witness or victim in a criminal investigation is up to five years in federal prison.

Our Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers will take a closer look at the relevant federal obstruction laws below.

What Constitutes Obstruction of Criminal Investigations?

As described in 18 U.S.C. 1510, obstruction of criminal investigations is a specific form of obstruction of justice that prevents witnesses from giving information to investigators or alerting potential suspects that their records are being looked at. This form of obstruction falls into different categories:

  • A person's use of any form of bribery to "obstruct, delay, or prevent" any witness from communicating information to a government investigator regarding a crime; or
  • A financial institution or insurance provider notifies a person that government investigators have subpoenaed their records or informs them what information was given to investigators.

Obstructing justice is generally described as hindering or preventing law enforcement from getting evidence about a crime.

The crime of obstruction using bribery requires proof the defendant offered or paid a bribe to someone with the intent to obstruct justice. 

Simply put, 18 U.S.C. § 1510 requires proof of the defendant's knowledge that the intended recipient of the witness information is a federal investigator, even if the information intended to suppress was already received.

If the defendant reasonably believed the bribe would accomplish its intended purpose, even if they are mistaken, the federal crime of obstruction using bribery is complete.

On a similar note, a defendant's effort to obstruct justice doesn't have to succeed. The witness or victim could accept the bribe payment and report the information to law enforcement.

Just the attempt to suppress information that was to be transmitted to federal investigators can lead to a conviction for violating 18 U.S.C. § 1510.

This law also applies to information sent to federal investigators before, during, and after a judicial proceeding has been initiated.

What Are Some Examples?

  • Example 1: A person under investigation for a federal crime attempts to "buy" the silence of a witness by offering money or favors in exchange for not telling law enforcement what they know;
  • Example 2: A person being investigated attempts to bribe a witness to delay giving their testimony to prosecutors so that the suspect has time to prepare an alibi or get rid of the evidence;
  • Example 3: A bank officer discovers that the government has issued a subpoena for bank records for a bank customer who happens to be one of his friends. Thinking of being a good friend, he alerts the customer of the subpoena's existence and reveals what information has been given to the investigators.

What Are the Penalties for Obstruction of Criminal Investigations?

If convicted of the crime of obstruction of criminal investigations, you could face steep fines and up to 5 years in the federal prison system.

The main exception to this penalty is an officer of a financial institution who notifies a customer or other person of a government subpoena.

Still, you didn't specifically intend to obstruct a judicial investigation. Under those circumstances, you may be facing up to one year in prison instead of five years.

The sentence received by a convicted defendant will depend on the sentencing court's application of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines along with the facts about the defendant's characteristics covered under Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 3553(a).

What Are the Related Federal Offenses?

Obstruction of criminal investigations falls under the broader category of obstruction of justice defined under 18 U.S. Code Chapter 73.

Numerous federal laws address the other forms of obstruction, and often they occur alongside this crime. Examples of these related offenses include:

Destruction, Alteration, or Falsification of Records in Federal Investigations (18 U.S.C. 1519). This crime involves purposely destroying, hiding, changing, or falsifying documents or other "tangible objects"—in other words, tampering with evidence. This is a serious offense that can earn up to 20 years in prison.

Destruction or Falsification of Records in Federal Investigations
A common federal obstruction crime includes destruction, alteration, or falsification of records.

Obstruction of Proceedings before Departments, Agencies, and Committees (18 U.S.C. 1505). Effectively, this law makes it a crime to lie or misrepresent information to government authorities during an investigation or to attempt to threaten another person to dissuade them from talking to authorities. It carries a penalty of up to 5-8 years in prison.

Witness Tampering (18 U.S.C. 1512). This law criminalizes any effort to physically kill, harm, threaten, intimidate, or coerce a witness, victim, or informant to prevent them from giving information to investigators or prosecutors. The penalty is up to 20 years in prison.

Retaliating against a witness, victim, or informant (18 U.S.C. 1513). Retaliation against government informants is a distinct but related offense. The statute says whoever kills or attempts to kill someone retaliates against anyone for attending an official proceeding can be punished by up to 30 years in prison.

Influencing or Injuring a Juror or Officer of the Court (18 U.S.C. 1503). This law makes it illegal to influence, threaten, harm, or otherwise impede any juror or court officer from discharging their duties. Depending on the severity of the action, the penalty is up to 10-20 years in prison.

Defending Against Obstruction of Criminal Investigations Charges

To procure a conviction for this crime, prosecutors must effectively demonstrate two things:

  • Intentional interference with the investigation by someone who knows about an ongoing criminal investigation, and
  • Knowledge that their actions could hinder the investigation in some way.

Since proving intent is a critical factor in proving you committed this crime, the most common defense against this charge is for your attorney to demonstrate that whatever action you took, you did not do so with the express intention of impeding the investigation or keeping the truth from coming out.

Our experienced partners have the knowledge and skills to help you develop an effective defense strategy that reduces the chances of a conviction.

If guilt is not in doubt, we may be able to negotiate a favorable plea agreement with the federal prosecutor.

Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles County and serves clients in Southern California and the United States for federal crimes.

You can reach our law firm for an initial consultation at (877) 781-1570 or fill out our contact form.

About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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