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The courts have clarified that obstruction must involve a clear and direct attempt to interfere with legal proceedings. Moreover, the First Amendment protects verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers. The cases below collectively suggest a trend towards a more specific and intentional definition of obstruction, requiring clear evidence of interference or an attempt to mislead or coerce during investigations.



Brogan v. United States (1998): The Supreme Court ruled that the "exculpatory no" doctrine (whereby a person could not be charged with obstruction for merely denying guilt) is not valid under the federal obstruction of justice statute. This case is relevant for situations where individuals at the scene of an investigation might falsely deny involvement or knowledge to law enforcement officers.


United States v. Aguilar (1995): This Supreme Court case is significant for its interpretation of obstruction of justice. The case involved a federal judge who was charged with obstruction for lying to the FBI during an investigation. The Supreme Court held that to be guilty of obstruction, there must be a clear nexus between the lie and a particular judicial proceeding. Simply lying to an investigator, without more, does not necessarily constitute obstruction.


United States v. Poindexter (1991): This case arose from the Iran-Contra affair and involved charges of conspiracy to obstruct a congressional inquiry. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions, emphasizing the importance of clear and specific warnings about the illegality of destroying documents in obstruction cases.


United States v. Kozminski (1988): While primarily a case about involuntary servitude, it has implications for obstruction at an investigation scene, particularly in situations where coercion or manipulation of witnesses or potential witnesses is involved.


City of Houston v. Hill (1987): This Supreme Court case involved a Houston ordinance that made it illegal to interrupt a police officer. The Court held that the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers, which is relevant in considering what constitutes obstruction at a scene.


United States v. Lauria (9th Cir. 1968): In this case, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that mere presence at the scene of an investigation, without some active attempt to obstruct, does not constitute obstruction of justice. This case is important for distinguishing between passive presence and active interference.


Q: What is considered obstruction in the context of First Amendment audits?

A: Obstruction typically refers to actions that interfere with law enforcement or government officials' duties, such as physically blocking their movement or preventing them from performing their tasks.


Q: Can filming a police officer be considered obstruction?

A: Generally, filming a police officer in a public space is not considered obstruction as long as it does not physically interfere with their duties.


Q: How close can I stand to police while conducting a First Amendment audit?

A: In most states, there is no specific distance defined by law, but it's important to maintain a reasonable distance that does not impede the officer's ability to perform his or her duties.


Q: What should I do if an officer says I’m obstructing by filming?

A: Politely assert your right to film in public, but ensure you're not physically impeding the officer. If necessary, step back to a distance where you're clearly not obstructing.


Q: Can verbal interactions with officers be considered obstruction?

A: Merely speaking to an officer is not typically obstruction, but interfering with their duties through aggressive or threatening behavior could be construed as such.


Q: Can verbal interactions with someone who is being questioned or detained by an officer be considered obstruction?

A: If a person who is not the subject of police questioning or detention interrupts or interferes with the police's ability to conduct their investigation or communicate with the detainee, it could potentially be considered obstruction. Obstruction generally occurs when someone knowingly or willfully interferes with the administration of justice or with the duties of law enforcement.


Q: Is refusing to provide identification considered obstruction?

A: This depends on state laws and the situation. In some states, you're required to identify yourself in certain circumstances, and failure to do so can be considered obstruction.


Q: Can I refuse an officer’s request to stop filming?

A: Yes, you can refuse such a request when filming in a public space, as it's protected under the First Amendment, provided you're not obstructing their duties.


Q: What are the consequences of being charged with obstruction during an audit?

A: The consequences vary depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the obstruction, ranging from fines to imprisonment.


Q: How can I avoid being accused of obstruction during an audit?

A: Maintain a reasonable distance from officers, do not physically interfere with their duties, and remain calm and non-confrontational.


Q: What if an officer physically moves me while I'm conducting an audit?

A: If you believe your rights have been violated, comply at the moment but document the incident and consider seeking legal advice afterwards.


Q: Can asking an officer questions be considered obstruction?

A: Simply asking questions is not typically obstruction, but persistently interrupting their duties might be seen as such.


Q: What is the difference between legal observation and obstruction?

A: Legal observation involves monitoring and recording from a distance that does not interfere with officers' duties, whereas obstruction involves hindering their ability to perform their work.


Q: Can I be detained for obstruction while conducting a First Amendment audit?

A: If an officer believes you are obstructing their duties, they may detain you, but the legality of such detention can vary based on the circumstances.


Q: Should I stop filming if accused of obstruction?

A: It's generally advisable to continue filming unless you're clearly obstructing an officer’s duties or are ordered by a court to stop.


Q: Can I challenge an obstruction charge from a First Amendment audit?

A: Yes, you can challenge such charges, often with the assistance of a legal professional who can help argue the specifics of your case.


Disclaimer: The information provided in these FAQs is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult a licensed attorney.

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