A federal judge on Friday upheld the Justice Department’s decision to use a felony obstruction law against US Capitol rioters, a major victory for prosecutors who have used the statute to charge hundreds of Donald Trump supporters who were involved in the January 6 insurrection.
Several other defendants have challenged the law, and many of those challenges are still pending. But Friday’s ruling means the Justice Department’s strategy for charging the Capitol rioters has survived a key test.
Federal Judge Dabney Friedrich denied a request by two rioters to throw out the charge – “obstruction of an official proceeding,” which is often used for things like witness tampering, but has been used in January 6 cases because of the disruption of the Electoral College proceedings before Congress. Lawmakers’ formal certification of President Joe Biden’s victory was delayed for hours as rioters ransacked the building and fought with police officers.
Friedrich, a Trump appointee, rejected the defendants’ argument that the congressional certification of the Electoral College results was not an “official proceeding.”
“The Joint Session thus has the trappings of a formal hearing before an official body,” Friedrich wrote. “There is a presiding officer, a process by which objections can be heard, debated, and ruled upon, and a decision – the certification of the results – that must be reached before the session can be adjourned. … Accordingly, the congressional certification at issue here is a ‘proceeding before the Congress.’”
She also rejected arguments that the law was unconstitutionally vague and that it only pertains to judicial, not congressional, proceedings.
“Because the government has alleged that the defendants acted corruptly, or unlawfully, and with the intent to obstruct … the defendants were on notice that their conduct violated the statute and ‘no more is required’ at this stage of the prosecution,” Friedrich wrote.
The ruling concerned only two specific defendants, and it doesn’t prevent other district judges from ruling against the Justice Department in other cases. With several other challenges pending, whether the law can be used against January 6 defendants may ultimately be resolved by a higher appeals court.
Prosecutors have used the felony obstruction charge as the cornerstone of many of the more serious Capitol riot cases. Many of the few hundred defendants facing the charge were outspoken about their desire to stop the certification of the Electoral College results, or even entered the Senate chamber.
A ruling against the Justice Department on this matter would have sent massive ripple effects throughout the January 6 cases, and would have had a dramatic effect on prosecutors’ efforts to push for felony convictions and longer prison sentences. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison – the same potential punishment as a sedition charge, which is much more difficult to prove in court.
A few defendants have already pleaded guilty to the obstruction charge, including members of far-right extremist group the Oath Keepers. Three other defendants who pleaded guilty to the charge have already faced sentencing, and they got between 8 months and 3.5 years in federal prison.
CNN’s Tierney Sneed contributed to this report.