Nov 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Judge casts doubt on obstruction charge in Capitol riot cases

Photo of Trump supporters crowding an entry into the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 riots
Demonstrators clash with law enforcement as they attempt to breach the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge on Friday questioned a key charge the Justice Department is relying on to prosecute hundreds of Capitol riot defendants, Politico reports.

Why it matters: For many defendants, the obstruction charge is the most serious count they face. If U.S. District Court Judge Dabney Friedrich tosses out the charge in the case of Guy Reffitt, it could be similarly dismissed in other cases.

How it works: The criminal charge of obstruction penalizes "[w]hoever corruptly otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so."

  • It's typically applied in cases where a defendant has intimidated witnesses, jurors or judges, or destroyed records or evidence, according to Politico. It carries a maximum of two decades in prison.
  • Prosecutors argue that it applies to efforts to thwart any "official proceeding" by the federal government, including the certification of the 2020 election, which is what Trump supporters were protesting when they breached the Capitol.
  • Defense lawyers, however, have contended that the charge does not apply outside the legal system.

Details: Reffitt is charged with confronting an officer and bringing a weapon onto the grounds. The DOJ's affidavit states that he threatened to shoot his children if they turned him in.

  • On Friday, his attorney asked Friedrich to dismiss the obstruction charge.
  • Though Friedrich agreed that the certification of the election counts as an official proceeding, she raised doubts about whether the charge is appropriate.

What she's saying: "This is a vague, undefined word," she said per Politico, referring to the statute's use of the term "corruptly."

  • "When you’re looking at such an undefined term that you’re interpreting so broadly ... you’re basically saying the meaning of corruptly is wrongful," she told prosecutor Jeff Nestler.
  • When Nestler said the DOJ aims to prove that Reffitt's intention was corrupt, evil and wrongful, Friedrich asked, "But what does that mean? The jury needs to decide what’s evil?"
  • "That doesn’t have meaning," she added. "It’s standardless."

What's next: Prosecutors have until Nov. 29 to make their case in greater detail.

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