Obstructing The Administration of Law (Part 3)

by | Apr 14, 2019 | Blog, Criminal Law, Legal Procedures

Justice Timpone continued: The statute is unambiguous. It defines the explicit means by which one may be criminally liable for obstruction and requires affirmative interference. The statute’s second sentence informs interpretation of the statute’s meaning overall, namely, that the obstruction statute in its entirety requires as a necessary element an act of affirmative interference. Otherwise, the outer contours of the statute would be difficult to limit. For example, a defendant could be convicted of obstruction for sitting on his couch and declining to respond to the police officer’s knock.

Commentary from the Model Penal Code supports the requirement of an affirmative act. N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 contains similar language to section 242.1 of the Model Penal Code, which exempts from its reach “failure to perform a legal duty” and “any other means of avoiding compliance with law without affirmative interference with governmental functions.” Model Penal Code § 242.1 (Am. Law Inst. 1962). As the commentary explains, “the effect of this language is to require some affirmative obstructive act.” We hold that to find criminal liability under N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1 requires an affirmative act or some affirmative interference.

We turn to whether Fede’s refusal to unchain the lock on his door to permit police to enter his home formed a sufficient factual basis for his conviction. Fede’s refusal to remove the already-fastened chain lock required no physical effort; it was not an act. It would be both counterintuitive and contrary to the plain meaning of the term “affirmative,” which requires effort, to find that defendant affirmatively interfered with the police by failing to remove an already-fastened chain lock from his door. Our case law and the statute do not compel a different result.

The Court’s repetition of the phrase “already fastened” indicates that there would have been a different result if the lock were not yet fastened when the police told the defendant of their intention to enter his home. Had he fastened the lock at that point, the State would have had a much stronger case for obstruction of justice based on the defendant’s affirmative act.