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Dozens of Jan. 6 cases face uncertainty after Supreme Court narrows prosecutors use of obstruction charge

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(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court’s ruling Friday narrowing a key obstruction statute used against more than 300 individuals charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol could affect dozens of cases brought by the Justice Department in the three years since prosecutors say a mob of former President Donald Trump’s supporters disrupted Congress’ certification of his election loss.

In a 6-3 opinion, the majority of the court ruled that prosecutors overstepped in using the charge against defendants in cases where defendants were unable to show their actions impaired the integrity of actual physical evidence used in a disrupted proceeding.

In a statement Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the Justice Department would be taking “appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling,” while noting the “vast majority” of the more than 1,400 defendants charged thus far in its Jan. 6 probe would remain unimpacted.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington, D.C., of the 249 cases where defendants have either been charged or convicted of the obstruction statute at issue, there are no cases in which it is the only criminal charge they faced.

“Today’s decision will most significantly impact a narrow band of cases: those where the only felony for which a defendant was convicted and sentenced was 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2),” the office said in a fact sheet sent to reporters. “In total, approximately 52 individuals have been convicted and sentenced on that charge and no other felony; of those individuals, only 27 are currently serving a sentence of incarceration — less than 2 percent of all charged cases arising from the Capitol Breach.”

Judges in D.C.’s district court overseeing the Capitol riot cases already began responding Friday to the court’s ruling, including in at least one case where a defendant was convicted of the obstruction statute alongside other felonies.

D.C. District Judge Dabney Friedrich issued an order for prosecutors and defense attorneys for convicted Jan. 6 rioter Guy Reffitt, who was the first Capitol breach defendant to take his case to trial, to confer and propose a schedule for future proceedings in the case in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Friedrich further told parties to contact the court to schedule a date for Reffitt’s resentencing.

In August of 2022, Reffitt was sentenced to more than seven years in prison on multiple felony counts, including the obstruction charge now impacted by the court’s ruling.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, prosecutors may still have a limited path to continue pushing for the charge’s application against defendants if they have evidence that a defendant intended to specifically prevent Congress from signing off on the physical electoral certification records used in the Jan. 6 proceedings.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson left open the possibility that even the defendant who brought the challenge at issue in Friday’s ruling, former police officer Joseph Fischer, could still be convicted of the charge after his case was remanded, should prosecutors be able to show his conduct “involved the impairment (or the attempted impairment) of the availability or integrity of things used during the January 6 proceeding.”

Such a reading of the statute could also help special counsel Jack Smith in his argument for the obstruction charge’s application against former President Donald Trump in his federal election interference case.

In a legal brief with the Supreme Court last year, Smith’s prosecutors said that even if the court sided with Fischer’s interpretation of the statute, it should not impact the two similar charges Smith indicted Trump over for his involvement in allegedly obstructing the Jan. 6 certification.

Their reasoning: While a case may be harder to make against individual rioters in obstructing or altering physical evidence connected to the proceeding, the Trump indictment does allege a tie to specific documents — the fraudulent certificates delivered by so-called “fake electors” that falsely certified a Trump victory in swing states he lost to Joe Biden.

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