The phrase “obstruction of justice” is bandied about in the news a lot these days, so we thought it might be informative to discuss exactly what this phrase means — and why it is considered a crime.

Obstruction of justice is, essentially, an offense against the entire judicial process. It’s loosely defined as any action you commit that subverts, influences, impedes or obstructs an investigation or the administration of the law. You can be charged with obstruction of justice under both federal and state laws.

What sort of things lead to an obstruction charge?

Some relatively common behaviors that can lead to charges of obstruction include:

  • Lying to investigators: Most people don’t realize that they can refuse to answer a detective’s questions but they’re not allowed to lie. Where the federal authorities are concerned, even saying something like “I don’t know,” in response to a question can come back to haunt you if they have evidence that you do (or should) know what they’re asking.
  • Concealing evidence: Many a poor soul has found themselves facing charges after they did a friend or relative a favor and hid a bag of evidence that the police wanted to see.
  • Destroying evidence: Keep in mind that this is the electronic age, so deleting emails and text messages or computer files can get you into as much trouble as shredding documents or ditching a gun.
  • Intimidating potential witnesses: Telling someone who may have information the authorities want that they’d better not do any talking can also be viewed as an act of obstruction — especially if you were intimidating to the witness.

An obstruction of justice charge can stick even when the authorities can’t get the evidence to prosecute you for other crimes — and the penalties can be quite severe. Before you end up facing serious charges, find out what your rights really are.