Monday, February 7, 2022
What’s in a name? Several of the individuals indicted in connection with the January 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol have been charged under Title 18, United States Code, Section 1512(c)(2). Subsection (c) of 18 U.S.C. §1512 seeks to punish: “Whoever corruptly--(1) alters, destroys, mutilates, or conceals a record, document, or other object, or attempts to do so, with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding; or (2) otherwise obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” 18 U.S.C. §1515 supplies definitions for some of the terms used in §1512 and defines “official proceeding” to include, among other things, “a proceeding before the Congress.” Many of the motions to dismiss filed by January 6 defendants, and judicial opinions denying these motions, center around whether §1512(c)(2) was meant to be confined to proceedings that are quasi-judicial or evidentiary in nature, even if the proceedings take place in Congress. I previously posted three of these judicial opinions. That is not my focus here.
18 U.S.C §1512, a lengthy statute with several subsections, has a title as well. The official title is: “Tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant.” That is the only title the statute has. None of the subsections of §1512 contains an additional or separate subtitle. Note, however, that none of the persons charged under 18 U.S.C. §1512(c)(2) has been literally charged in his or her Indictment, or in any press coverage that I have seen, with, “tampering with a witness, victim, or an informant,’ which, again, is the only title of §1512. To take one example, in U.S. v. Nordean et al., the defendants are charged in the First Superseding Indictment with “Obstruction of an Official Proceeding and Aiding and Abetting.” This makes sense. The facts alleged against the defendants appear to align with the literal language of §1512(c)(2) and do not involve witness tampering.
Fast forward to the recent indictment of Oath Keeper Elmer Steward Rhodes III and others for “Seditious conspiracy,” pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2384. The defendants are also charged with violating several other statutes, including 18 U.S.C. §1512(c)(2). While 18 U.S.C. § 2384, unlike §1512(c)(2), does not have separately numbered subsections, it clearly sets out several different ways in which the crime can be committed. For example, one cannot “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them.” I believe something like this formulation is what most people think of when they think of sedition. But Rhodes and his Oath Keepers were not charged under that "overthrow the Government" portion of the statute. They were charged with conspiring “by force to prevent, hinder, and delay the execution of any law of the United States.” (The laws allegedly being hindered were the Electoral Count Act and the Twelfth and Twentieth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.) The caption in the Indictment could have set the charge out in this fashion, as a “conspiracy to by force prevent, hinder, and delay” particular laws of the United States, with a citation to 18 U.S.C. §2384. That is not what Department of Justice officials decided to do, however. They captioned the charge as “seditious conspiracy.” There was nothing improper about their decision, just as there was nothing improper about their decision to list §1512(c)(2) in the caption of Nordean as “obstruction of an official proceeding” rather than “witness-tampering.”
But the effect in the wider media culture was predictable. Several pro-Trump television commentators had been making the point that none of the January 6 defendants were seditionists, because none had been charged with seditious conspiracy. They could not say this anymore in light of the Rhodes Indictment and their prior comments were thrown back in their faces by progressive commentators. So be it. That’s politics. But, at least with respect to the indicted January 6 rioters, conspiring by force to prevent, hinder, and delay the execution of the Electoral Count Act (“seditious conspiracy”) is not substantially different than corruptly obstructing or conspiring to corruptly obstruct the very Congressional proceeding in which the Electoral Count Act is being executed. They are both serious charges that should be prosecuted vigorously if the facts so warrant. And if any Congressperson, Executive Branch official, or podcast host aided and abetted or joined a conspiracy to violate either statute, under traditional criminal law principles, he or she should be prosecuted as well.
Sloppy language, however, invites sloppy thinking and prosecuting someone for aiding and abetting a violent mob intent on forcefully stopping a critical Congressional proceeding or the execution of a statute, is quite different than prosecuting someone for seditious conspiracy because he told a crowd that the election was stolen, invited them to peacefully protest the vote count, or tried to convince Mike Pence that he had the power to refuse to certify certain slates of electors. (I wrote about John Eastman's potential criminal exposure, in the context of the Fifth Amendment's Privilege Against Self-Incrimination, here.) Likewise, prosecuting anyone for delaying the vote count by using the procedures set out in the Electoral Count Act, is without more, doomed to fail under rather basic constitutional and criminal law tests. The devil is always in the details of the purportedly criminal acts under examination.
The people intent on federally prosecuting Trump and his cohorts for the events on and surrounding January 6, 2021, need to think small and in terms of traditional criminal law principles. We witnessed a riot. We witnessed criminal assaults. We witnessed people invading Congressional offices and threatening to “Hang Mike Pence.” Some of the people who committed these acts were attempting to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. There are statutes in place that appear to criminalize this conduct. The quest to use the criminal law to “go after the higher-ups” should focus on who, if anybody, aided, abetted, counseled, commanded, induced or procured the commission of these specific criminal offenses--not on people engaged in protected First Amendment political activity. In the words of the standard pattern aiding and abetting instruction, “whoever intentionally associated himself in some way with the crime and intentionally participated in it as he would in something he wished to bring about,” is punishable as a principal. My guess is that some pretty well-known people are sleeping uneasily these days. My further guess, and it is no more than a guess, is that the DOJ has been looking at these people for some time. But I seriously doubt, based on currently known information, it will go much beyond these folks.