Obstruction is a common charge in Las Vegas, and potentially can result from almost any unfavorable interaction with a police officer. Although obstruction of a public officer is only a misdemeanor, people can, and often are, arrested for this crime, and face additional jail time and fines as potential punishment for conviction. Read below about how Nevada law defines obstruction, and how a criminal defense attorney can help you if you are charged with this crime.
NRS 197.190 defines the crime of obstructing a public officer. This statute states that any person who, "after due notice" refuses to make a statement required by law or makes a misleading statement to a public officer, or otherwise hinders, delays, or obstructs a public officer "in the discharge of official powers or duties" is guilty of a misdemeanor. I'll address the three subcategories of obstruction below.
Refusing to Make a Statement
If you have a passing familiarity with the United States Constitution, you probably know that you cannot be forced to make an incriminating statement against yourself to police. However, you may not know that you are still required to give some information to police under certain circumstances. In particular, so-called "stop and identify" laws require citizens to give their identity to police. The authority for these laws comes from the Supreme Court Case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).
Nevada's stop and identify law is NRS 171.123, which states that a person stopped by a police officer "shall identify himself or herself, but may not be compelled to answer any other inquiry of any peace officer." In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, 542 U.S. 177 (2004), the Nevada Supreme Court held that Nevada's stop and identify laws do not violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Therefore, a person can be charged with obstruction if he is stopped by a police officer and refuses to give his identity. But what happens if a person gives a false identity? Read below.
Making an Untrue, Misleading or Exaggerated Statement
NRS 197.190 states that a person commits obstruction by making "any willfully untrue, misleading or exaggerated statement" to a police officer. Often, when police officers are questioning suspects, they will know certain information about them. For instance, police will run a search and be able to pull up a person's prior criminal record. Then, in the course of their investigation, the police officer will ask certain questions, like whether the suspect has been arrested before. If the suspect answers no, and this answer is false, then the suspect may find himself charged with obstruction.
This conduct is a misdemeanor, just like any other obstruction charge under this statute. However, if the information or statement that the suspect gives is a false name, social security number, date of birth, or anything else that is considered "personal identifying information," then that suspect may be charged with the more serious felony offense of possession and use of the personal identifying information of another for an illegal purpose.
Nevada law doesn't define what might constitute a "misleading"
or "exaggerated" statement, but consistent with the rest of
this statute, there is a high degree of subjectivity inherent in the broad
language that leaves this law wide open for interpretation by police officers.
But the vaguest variety of obstruction charge is the following.
Willfully Hindering, Delaying or Obstructing
According to NRS 197.190, a person is guilty of obstruction if he "willfully hinder[s], delay[s] or obstruct[s] any public officer in the discharge of official powers or duties." You may notice that obstruction of a public officer therefore may be defined as "obstruct[ing] any public officer," which makes this statute not just vague, but circular. A circular definition is one that uses the term being defined as part of the definition itself. This type of definition is therefore considered unhelpful. Yet here, Nevada law defines "obstruction of an officer" as "obstructing an officer." This is a problem for anyone seeking to understand what kind of conduct our obstruction law actually prohibits. I cannot make much sense of this definition, but I can describe common scenarios where people are charged with obstructing a police officer.
For instance, one of the most common scenarios leading to obstruction charges is when a police officer is investigating an alleged crime and the suspect's companion (i.e. a friend, family member, or loved one) advises the suspect not to say anything to police. The suspect's companion is then charged with obstruction for supposedly hindering the police officer's investigation. Even defense attorneys present during criminal investigations have been charged with obstruction under this factual scenario.
Obstruction of a public officer should be distinguished from interfering with or resisting a public officer, which is defined by NRS 197.090 as attempting to deter an executive or administrative officer from performing his legal duties, or resisting an officer, "by means of any threat, force or violence." Interfering with or resisting an officer with force is a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail, so it is a more serious offense than simple obstruction.
Obstruction of a public officer is a misdemeanor. If you are found guilty and convicted of obstructing a police officer, the judge has discretion to sentence you to serve jail time, to pay a fine, or both. The maximum jail sentence is 6 months, and the maximum fine is $1,000. The actual punishment will often depend upon several factors, including the specific facts of the case and whether the defendant has any prior record. Also, the jurisdiction will typically make a difference for potential punishment. For instance, misdemeanor obstruction charges tend to be treated more seriously in Las Vegas Municipal Court as opposed to Las Vegas Justice Court. In any case, you may be able to avoid harsher penalties by negotiating your case with the help of a criminal defense attorney.
If you have been charged with obstructing a public officer, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney about your case. As you have read above, Nevada's obstruction statute is very vaguely defined. This is typical of other obstruction statutes on the books in jurisdictions across the country. In general, obstruction laws are seen by many in the criminal defense community as an excuse for cops to punish people when they don't like their attitudes.
Fortunately, many obstruction charges can be negotiated favorably with the prosecutor to avoid jail time or excessive fines. And if you had the misfortune to pick up an obstruction charge while vacationing in Las Vegas, you can very likely avoid having to come back to personally appear in court if you hire a defense attorney to handle your case.
I have helped many people charged with obstruction in Las Vegas and in other areas of Southern Nevada. If you are facing these charges or any other criminal charges, call me now to talk about your case. Consultations are always free.
By Michael Pandullo