Obstruction of Justice in California

There is no specific crime of "obstruction of justice" under California state law. However, a number of offenses fall under the general category of obstructing justice. These include:

an untrustworthy man offering false evidence
Penal Code 132 makes it illegal to offer physical evidence that is known to be forged or fraudulent.

1. What is offering false evidence?

California Penal Code 132 PC makes it illegal to offer physical evidence that is known to be forged or fraudulent.1 It applies to any official hearing or investigation, including:

  • Trials,
  • Official proceedings,
  • Inquiries, and
  • Investigations.

The evidence can be completely or partially altered or fabricated. As long as it is false, but presented as true, it can violate Penal Code 132.

Example: Bob knows his accountant altered the date on an expense report. He presents it at trial, anyway.

PC 132 only applies to physical evidence. Presenting non-physical evidence or oral testimony known to be false can lead to perjury charges, instead.

Offering false physical evidence is a felony offense. It carries penalties of:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail, and
  • up to $10,000 in fines.

2. What does it mean to prepare false evidence?

Penal Code 134 PC prohibits preparing false evidence.2 To be liable, defendants have to allow it or intend for it to be used in an official hearing or investigation. The evidence has to be physical, like a:

  • book,
  • paper,
  • record, or
  • instrument in writing.

Example: Bob's accountant whites out the date on the expense report and writes a new one in its place so Bob can use it in trial.

Charges for preparing false evidence usually accompany charges for forgery.

Violations of Penal Code 134 are felonies. Convictions carry penalties of:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail, and
  • up to $10,000 in fines.

3. What is destroying evidence?

Penal Code 135 PC prohibits knowingly destroying physical evidence that is in someone else's possession.3 It protects evidence that is about to be used in an official proceeding. The destruction of evidence includes:

  • destroying,
  • erasing, or
  • concealing it.

Example: Bob knows his boss keeps copies of the expense reports in his office. While his boss is at lunch, Bob walks in, takes the relevant report, and hides it in his filing cabinet.

Destroying evidence is a misdemeanor in California. Convictions carry penalties up to:

  • 6 months in jail, and
  • fines of up to $1,000.
man intimidating witness
Witness intimidation is forbidden by Penal Code 136.1

4. What is witness tampering or intimidation?

Obstruction of justice can also be committed by intimidating or tampering with witnesses. Penal Code 136.1 PC forbids knowingly and maliciously:

  • preventing or dissuading a witness or victim from attending a proceeding or giving testimony, or
  • attempting to prevent or dissuade them from doing so.4

Example: Bob realizes that Karen saw him leave his boss's office with the expense report. He leaves a note on her desk saying, “I wouldn't tell anyone, if I were you.”

Typically, tampering with a witness or intimidating them is a misdemeanor that carries penalties of up to:

  • 1 year in jail, and
  • $1,000 in fines.

However, it can become a felony if:

  • it is accompanied by force or a threat of force against a witness, victim, third party, or anyone's property,
  • it furthers a conspiracy,
  • the person doing it is being paid, or
  • the person doing it has a prior conviction for intimidating or tampering with a witness.5

Felony-level witness tampering under PC 136.1 carries:

  • 2, 3, or 4 years in jail, and
  • a fine of up to $10,000.

5. What is obstruction of a police officer?

Obstruction of justice can also be done in the field. Penal Code 148 PC makes it illegal to willfully resist, delay, or obstruct a police officer or emergency medical technician (EMT) in their official duties.6

Example: Protesters block the street to prevent a police car, with sirens and lights flashing, from responding to a call.

Penal Code 148(a) also includes resisting arrest.

Police officers make frequent use of PC 148(a) to control crowds and bystanders. They often claim that videotaping them in public is obstruction of justice.

Obstructing a police officer is a misdemeanor. Penalties of a conviction include:

  • up to $1,000 in fines, and
  • up to a year in jail.

6. What defenses are available?

People accused of obstructing justice have legal defenses at their disposal. Some of the most important include:

  • Lack of intent,
  • First Amendment rights, and
  • Mistaken identity.

All forms of obstruction of justice require the defendant to act knowingly. It is not a crime to tell someone to stay home without knowing they were being called to testify at a hearing. Similarly, destroying something without knowing it was evidence is not a crime.

The First Amendment gives people the right to speak freely and associate with whomever they want. It also allows people to videotape police when they perform official acts in public. These can be strong defenses when a police officer accuses someone of obstructing them.

Prosecutors also have to show that it was the defendant who intimidated a witness or destroyed evidence. Mistaken identity can be a strong defense. This is especially true if the defendant has an alibi.

Contact us for help...

california criminal defense attorneys
Call us for help at (855) LAW-FIRM

For more information or help from a criminal defense lawyer, please contact us at Shouse Law Group. For cases in Colorado, please see our page on obstruction of justice laws in Colorado.

Legal References:

  1. California Penal Code 132

  2. California Penal Code 134

  3. California Penal Code 135

  4. California Penal Code 136.1(a)

  5. California Penal Code 136.1

  6. California Penal Code 148

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