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Judge casts doubt on obstruction charges in January 6 cases

Friedrich, a person appointed by President Donald Trump, appeared to be seriously considering dismissing the obstruction count – which carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years – in the case of Guy Reffitt, who is accused of confronting an officer outside the Capitol and bringing a gun. in the field.

Such a decision would almost certainly lead to the dismissal of this accusation in other cases it deals with and could influence similar decisions in other cases against the participants of January 6. In many cases, the obstruction charge is the most serious charge facing defendants.

The problem is the Justice Department’s decision to strike the accused on January 6 with a criminal charge that is more commonly applied to the alleged intimidation of witnesses, jurors or judges, or the destruction of records or evidence.

The offense is typically described in court records and news reports as obstruction of justice, but prosecutors have turned to it to indict alleged participants in the Capitol Riots, as it technically applies to efforts to thwart any “formal process” conducted by the federal government. This includes the Jan. 6 count of Electoral College votes that lawmakers are constitutionally mandated to conduct, DOJ argues.

The grand jury indictments accuse many suspected participants in the Capitol Riots of attempting to disrupt this process.

But defense lawyers for some suspected rioters argue that the provision – and its massive two-decade maximum jail term – does not apply outside the justice system. They note that a word in the law, “corrupt,” seems easy to understand in the context of threatened witnesses or shredded documents, but has no clear legal meaning in relation to a physical disturbance that requires congressional proceedings. to break. or be delayed.

The issue came to a head on Friday at a hearing for Reffitt. Reffitt’s attorney, William Welch, asked Friedrich to dismiss the obstruction charge.

During the hearing, Friedrich appeared to agree that the cited obstruction law was ill-suited to the assault on the Capitol building, especially given the focus on acts committed “in a corrupt manner” .

“It’s a vague and undefined word,” Friedrich said of the law’s reference to intent on bribery.

“When you look at a term so indefinite that you interpret it so broadly… you are essentially saying that the meaning of corruption is unfair,” Friedrich told prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler. “You’re essentially asking the jury to make a moral judgment here on what is wrong.”

Friedrich has repeatedly claimed that prosecutors could have laid another obstruction-related felony charge that involves harassment aimed at delaying or preventing someone from attending formal proceedings. This charge carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

“I don’t understand why you didn’t indict that one,” the judge said, noting that it doesn’t require a demonstration of corrupt intent.

Nestler said he believed Reffitt could have been charged with the harassment offense, but prosecutors chose the one requiring proof of corruption. He said the Supreme Court defined corrupt conduct as “unjust, immoral, depraved or bad”.

But Friedrich said she was uncomfortable asking jurors for a judgment that seemed more moral than factual.

“What does that mean? The jury has to decide what’s wrong?” She asked. “Every other time, historically, Congress has used the word“ corrupt, ”it was in a different way. . “

What exactly would happen if Friedrich ended the charge is difficult to predict. The other judges would not be required to follow his decision, although they would likely consider it.

A final resolution of the issue by the DC Circuit Court of Appeals might be elusive in a timely manner as it is difficult for the government to get review of the decisions of judges who dismiss a single charge, rather than all of them. ‘a case.

Prosecutors may choose to re-indict cases preventively to add the lowest harassment charge.

It is also unclear how much a decision overturning the obstruction of the Congressional accusation against Reffitt would do him any good, as he also faces several other charges, including the threat to shoot his son and daughter s ‘they were undermining him about his activities on Capitol Hill on January 6. Prosecutors have filed a single, more traditional obstruction of justice charge for the alleged threats. In theory, he could face up to 20 years in prison for that count alone.

Defense attorneys, including Welch, are also pursuing other arguments against the charges, including saying that the joint congressional meeting that took place on January 6 was not a formal proceeding under the law.

However, Friedrich told prosecutors on Friday that she agreed with them on this point.

“I buy your argument over there,” she said.

Friedrich did not render a decision on the pending petition on Friday, but gave prosecutors until November 29 to present their position in writing in more detail.

Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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