Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s testimony before two congressional committees generated a lot of discussion about a crime known as obstruction of justice. We all know the common meaning of “obstruction” and “justice,” but exactly what does it take to commit that crime?
The crimes falling under the federal category of obstruction of justice comprise a broad range, covering everything from picketing at a judge or juror’s house to destruction of corporate audit records, in addition to the more traditional crimes like juror tampering and interference with enforcement of a court order.
In Minnesota, there are many offenses in the category we call “crimes against the administration of justice.” Those offenses also span a wide spectrum of conduct. Examples include giving a false name to a police officer, failing to appear for court, perjury, witness tampering and escape from custody.
There is a specific crime called “obstructing legal process,” which is what most people would call resisting arrest. That type of charge is very different from what most people think of when they use the term “obstructing justice,” so the terminology can cause some confusion.
The closest Minnesota counterpart to the events being discussed in Washington is called “obstructing an investigation,” which is one part of a broader statute making it a crime to aid an offender. It has four basic elements:
- That a person committed a serious crime (meaning one with a mandatory minimum sentence) recognized by Minnesota, or a similar crime in another state or the United States;
- That the defendant knew or had reason to know that person committed the crime;
- That the defendant did at least one of the following acts: destroyed or concealed evidence of the crime; provided false or misleading evidence about the crime; received the proceeds of the crime; or obstructed the investigation or prosecution of the crime;
- That the defendant acted with the intent to aid the person who committed the underlying crime.
In order to convict the defendant of obstructing an investigation, the state would have to prove each of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. Some of those elements involving a particular state of mind, such as knowledge and intent, almost always require some sort of circumstantial evidence to prove.
Unless there is a confession or partial admission (and social media has become a major source of such statements) by the defendant, the only way to determine what someone knew or intended is by making inferences from their conduct. That often makes these cases tricky for the state to prove.
As a judge, these types of crimes strike very close to home. If people are able to commit crimes and avoid responsibility because others help them get away with it, the entire system loses credibility. At a minimum, this type of conduct makes it much harder for police, prosecutors, and judges to do their jobs.
Regardless of how you might feel about the congressional proceedings, we should all agree that it is important to hold accountable those who help others commit or conceal a crime.
Judge Dale Harris is a judge in the Sixth Judicial District, working out of the St. Louis County Courthouse in Duluth. He was born in Two Harbors. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Hermantown with their four children.