What Is Considered Obstruction of Justice?

When can you be charged with obstruction of justice? Learn what exactly is considered obstruction of justice andget a legal expert’s take on this crime that snared Martha Stewart.

Adam Freedman
4-minute read

What About Contempt of Court?

So when does failure to cooperate--as distinct from outright tampering--get you into trouble?  Basically, when a court or other government agency has ordered you to cooperate.

If you have information relevant to a pending case, you’re generally not required to voluntarily rush over to the courthouse.  But the court can issue what’s known as a subpoena, which orders you to produce documents, or give testimony, or both.  There are penalties for failing to comply with a subpoena; indeed, the word “subpoena” means “under penalty” in Latin. 

Normally, failing to comply with a subpoena exposes you to liability for contempt of court.  In extreme cases, witnesses who fail to cooperate can be locked up.  In the famous Whitewater case, former Clinton aide Susan MacDougal spent eighteen months behind bars for refusing to answer questions pursuant to a grand jury subpoena. 

The Fifth Amendment and Contempt of Court

Shawn is correct to mention the right against self-incrimination, guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.  A witness can refuse to answer a question if doing so might tend to expose him or her to criminal liability.  In that case, the witness can “plead the Fifth” and generally will not be at risk for contempt.

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community

Thank you for reading Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com. Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this article only.



About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).