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Wynn v. U.S.: Further Clarification of “Obstruction of Justice” in D.C.

Jamison KoehlerOpinions/Cases

A person is guilty of obstruction of justice in D.C. if that person “corruptly or by threats of force” obstructs or impedes — or attempts to obstruct or impede — “the due administration of justice in any official proceeding.” The question decided in Cotey Wynn et al v. United States, 48 A.3d 181 (D.C. 2012), an opinion issued last month by the D.C. Court of Appeals, was whether the actions of police officers responding to a crime scene fall within the definition of “due administration of justice in any official proceeding.” The Court used the legislative history of the statute, as well as a number of rules of statutory construction, to conclude that they do not.

The three defendants in Wynn were charged with obstruction of justice after they were accused of interfering with police officers who arrived on scene to investigate a crime. Because “investigation” is included within the definition of “official proceeding” (“any trial, hearing, investigation, or other proceeding in a court of the District of Columbia or conducted by the Council of the District of Columbia or an agency or department of the District of Columbia, or a grand jury proceeding”), the government argued that interfering with a police investigation would fall within the scope of the offense.  The government also pointed out that the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) is one such agency of the D.C. government.

The Court of Appeals used different rules of statutory construction to respond to this argument; namely, that “a court should give effect, if possible, to every clause and word of a statute,” that “a statute should not be construed in such a way as to render certain provisions superfluous or insignificant” and that the “meaning – or ambiguity — of certain words or phrases may only become relevant when placed in context.” It also examined the legislative history of the statute to discern City Council’s intent in enacting the law. After all, it noted with yet another rule of statutory construction, the “primary and general rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the lawmaker is to be found in the language he has used.”

Yes, the definition of “official proceeding” does include the language, as pointed out by the government, pertaining to an “investigation . . . conducted by . . . an agency . . . of the District of Columbia government.”  At the same time, construing this language to include police officers responding to a crime scene ignores the other part of the statutory provision:  “due administration of justice in any official proceeding.”

“Official proceeding” clearly suggests something more formal than a police investigation. For example, while “proceeding” may “comfortably” be used to describe investigations by a grand jury or D.C. City Council or by an administrative agency within the government, “it is unclear what a ‘proceeding,’ much less an ‘official proceeding,’ would mean in the context of a rapidly unfolding MPD response to the sound of gunshots.” Moreover, it was in fact the legislature’s intention to encompass formal investigations by the grand jury and the Council itself when it inserted the word “investigation” into the statute to begin with:  The “Council’s consistent theme was its concern for the safety of government witnesses.”

As for “due administration of justice,” that term “is used primarily, if not exclusively, to describe the proper functioning and integrity of a court or hearing.”  It would not encompass a police officer arriving on the scene of a recently committed offense to investigate.  The Court thus reversed the convictions of the three defendants.