Supreme Court rules in favor of Jan. 6 defendant in dispute over obstruction charge

Written by on June 28, 2024

(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court on Friday ruled in favor of a former Pennsylvania police officer charged for his alleged participation in the U.S. Capitol attack, saying a felony obstruction charge was improperly applied in his case.

The 6-3 opinion came from Chief Justice John Roberts. He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

At issue was whether a 2002 law enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal to prevent the destruction of evidence in financial crimes could be used against defendant Joseph Fischer and other alleged participants in the pro-Trump mob attack on the U.S. Capitol of Jan. 6, 2021, which disrupted congressional certification of electoral votes from the 2020 presidential election.

The court’s majority wrote it could not, dismissing the government’s interpretation of the statute as overly broad.

To prove a violation of the law at hand, the court said “the Government must establish that the defendant impaired the availability or integrity for use in an official proceeding of records, documents, objects.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, in her dissent, said while the events of Jan. 6 may not have been the target of the 2002 law, it includes a sweeping provision for any conduct that obstructs or impedes an official proceeding.

“The Court does not dispute that Congress’s joint session qualifies as an ‘official proceeding’; that rioters delayed the proceeding; or even that Fischer’s alleged conduct (which includes trespassing and a physical confrontation with law enforcement) was part of a successful effort to forcibly halt the certification of the election results,” Barrett wrote.

“Given these premises, the case that Fischer can be tried for ‘obstructing, influencing, or impeding an official proceeding’ seems open and shut. So why does the Court hold otherwise?” she continued. “Because it simply cannot believe that Congress meant what it said.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland expressed disappointment in the court’s decision but said it will have a limited impact on the Justice Department’s prosecutions.

“The vast majority of the more than 1,400 defendants charged for their illegal actions on January 6 will not be affected by this decision,” Garland said in a statement. “There are no cases in which the Department charged a January 6 defendant only with the offense at issue in Fischer. For the cases affected by today’s decision, the Department will take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling.”

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