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What Is Obstruction of Justice?

Obstruction of justice covers a broad range of criminal charges that can be filed when a suspect somehow impedes or stands in the way of a criminal investigation or prosecution.

A recent example is the charging of Khairullozhon Matanov, 23, a Kyrgyzstani cab driver who was accused of obstructing a government probe into the Boston Marathon bombing. According to Reuters, Matanov had been friends with accused bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsanaev but allegedly lied about his connections to the brothers when questioned by police.

So what are the most common charges associated with obstruction of justice?

Lying to Officers

While you certainly have the right to refuse to answer police questions or ask for an attorney to be present, but you don't have a constitutional right to lie to law enforcement.

Making false or fictitious statements to federal law enforcement is a form of obstruction of justice, and it's also a felony. If you willfully defraud a federal officer who is questioning you -- even on a questionnaire -- you could be facing up to five years in prison.

Matanov reportedly faces three separate charges for making false statements concerning his relationship to the Tsarnaev brothers. And because the investigation dealt with terrorism, each charge carries a possible eight-year prison term.

Hiding or Destroying Evidence

If you willfully hide or destroy evidence to hamper an investigation, you likely have committed some form of obstruction. Concealing, altering, or destroying evidence or documents in order to impede or obstruct a federal investigation is a serious felony with a 20-year maximum penalty.

The evidence doesn't necessarily need to be physical either. In Matanov's indictment, prosecutors allege that he knowingly deleted information from his Internet search history related to the Tsarnaevs as well as hundreds of files after learning the FBI might contact him.

Common Law Obstruction

Many states also recognize a more general crime of common law obstruction of justice, which generally refers to interfering with a criminal investigation. These laws may be used to punish acts which on their own may seem harmless but are intended to influence or impede an investigation.

Suspects may be charged with this common law form of obstruction for persuading a witness not to testify, even if their acts do not rise to the level of witness intimidation.

If you or someone you know is concerned about obstruction of justice charges, you'll want to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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