Supreme Court’s January 6 ruling overturns hundreds of Capitol riot cases

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday threw a major hurdle in the Justice Department’s ongoing effort to prosecute hundreds of Americans who took part in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, ruling that a key charge brought against hundreds of defendants may not relate to the conduct of rioters that day.

In a ruling delivered by a majority vote of 6-3A court found that prosecutors improperly applied a federal “obstructing an official proceeding” charge in connection with Congress’s certification of President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory.

The decision — in a case brought by Joseph W. Fischer, a former police officer from North Cornwall Township in Lebanon County — could force the re-sentencing of hundreds of Capitol riot defendants and have implications for the federal election interference case against former President Donald Trump.

But its effects may also be constrained. Most of the Capitol riot defendants found guilty of obstruction charges were also convicted of other crimes related to the attack. The Supreme Court left open the possibility that some obstruction convictions could still stand if prosecutors present additional evidence.

Here’s what you need to know:

Who is Joseph Fischer?

Fischer, 57, of Jonestown, Pennsylvania, was a patrol officer with the North Cornwall Township Police Department when FBI agents arrested him in February 2021 for his role in the riot.

Prosecutors say he was “at the front of the pack, pressuring police” during the fight and was captured on police video shouting “Charge!” to a crowd of livid supporters of former President Donald Trump. Several rioters standing nearby engaged in a scuffle with officers, knocking at least one to the ground. In the recording, a man, who investigators say is Fischer, can be heard shouting: “Let him go… let him go… I’m a policeman too.”

Before the riot, Fischer sent text messages telling friends that members of Congress “[c]won’t vote if they can’t breathe…lol” and that he might need the police chief to “post my bail…There could be violence.”

Fischer later joked on Facebook that his boss confronted him after learning of his role in the attack and wrote that he “might need a job.”

“I told him that if this was the price I had to pay for expressing my freedom and liberties that I was born with and that were thus taken away from me, then [that] there has to be a price,” Fischer said, according to charging documents in his case. “I told him I had no regrets.”

Fischer has been charged with crimes including obstructing an official proceeding, assaulting law enforcement officers and obstructing police during a riot.

But before his case could go to trial, he challenged the obstruction charge, taking his argument all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His case has been on hold since June 2022.

What is “obstructing an official proceeding”?

The law states that obstructing an official proceeding is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison for “obstructing, influencing or obstructing any official proceeding.”

Government lawyers believed that the law, first enacted in response to the 2001 Enron scandal, loosely defined what constituted official conduct and what conduct would constitute an illegal attempt to obstruct it. The Justice Department used them in about 350 cases as of Jan. 6.

But Fischer and lawyers for several other Capitol riot defendants argued that the statute was instead intended to criminalize only the kind of destruction of physical evidence and documents that hindered congressional investigators from investigating the Enron collapse. It was not intended, they argued, to address any form of disruptive conduct that conflicts with any act of Congress.

Lawyers on Jan. 6 suggested that under the government’s theory, protesters who disrupted a congressional hearing could be sentenced to decades in prison for something as relatively trivial as shouting from the House gallery.

During the Supreme Court’s review of the case, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the wording of the law was vague enough to cover the disruptions that halted Congress’ certification of the 2020 election results as a result of the January 6 riots.

What did the Supreme Court say?

In its opinion Friday, the court agreed with Fischer’s interpretation, limiting the obstruction charge to attempts to destroy or tamper with documents or other physical evidence.

“The theory of government…would criminalize a wide range of mundane conduct, exposing activists and lobbyists to decades in prison,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented, arguing that a better interpretation of the law would be that, after the problems that arose during the Enron investigation, Congress sought to criminalize any conduct that might disrupt official proceedings.

What does the court’s ruling mean for the cases heard on January 6?

The court’s ruling complicates hundreds of Capitol riot cases and will prevent a federal judge overseeing the cases in Washington from hearing them for months.

The Justice Department has charged more than 20% of the roughly 1,400 people accused of participating in the Capitol riot since 2021 with felony “obstruction,” including at least 28 of the roughly 150 people from Pennsylvania and New Jersey who have been arrested so far.

More than 180 of these defendants from across the country – and at least 20 from Pennsylvania and New Jersey – have already been convicted of obstruction and, in some cases, sentenced to prison.

Many of them will now have to be punished.

Their ranks include Capitol riot defendants such as Zach Rehl, the former head of the Philadelphia Proud Boys, who was convicted along with three other leaders of the radical far-right organization for planning the violence that broke out that day. But because he and many others convicted of obstruction were also convicted of other serious crimes, their sentences are unlikely to change significantly.

For others, the ruling could mean early release from prison. In the case of self-proclaimed dating coach and social media influencer Patrick Stedman of Haddonfield, who is currently serving a four-year prison sentence, the most serious charge he faces was obstructing a relationship. A dismissal on that charge would reduce his prison sentence from a conviction on a lesser charge to 12 months — a prison term he has already served.

And in rare cases — like that of 31-year-old Richard Michetti of Ridley Park, whose ex-girlfriend turned her in after calling her a moron for not believing Democrats stole the 2020 election — it could have his conviction reversed entirely. .

As part of a deal with prosecutors, Michetti pleaded guilty to just one count of obstructing an official proceeding and was sentenced in 2022 to nine months behind bars. The government dismissed the other lesser charges he was originally charged with.

However, the court’s ruling on Friday does not necessarily mean that all the defendants charged with obstructing the investigation who were charged on January 6 are now innocent.

In an accompanying opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson noted that if prosecutors were able to prove that resident residents like Fischer specifically interfered — or attempted to interfere — with documents used by Congress in certifying the 2020 vote, such as the electoral certificates filed by each state, and which are tallied in these proceedings, the obstruction charge could still stand under the majority’s ruling issued Friday.

“It may be that Fischer’s conduct, as alleged in this case, involved tampering with (or attempting to tamper with) the availability or integrity of the items used in the January 6 proceedings,” Jackson wrote. “If so, then the charge against Fischer [on the obstruction charge ] can and should proceed.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that the ruling would not stop the Justice Department from continuing to take action to hold rioters accountable.

“For the matters covered by today’s decision, the Department will take appropriate steps to comply with the Court’s ruling,” Garland said. “We will continue to use all tools at our disposal to hold accountable those responsible for the attack on our democracy on January 6.”

Does the ruling affect cases against Trump?

Perhaps, but it’s less clear. Trump, who was indicted by a federal grand jury in Washington last year on charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, faces two counts of obstructing an official proceeding.

For example, the charges against Trump are based in part on his attempts to submit false voter certifications from battleground states like Pennsylvania to Congress on January 6. These certificates appear to be the type of congressional record that the Supreme Court said on Friday is crucial to bringing an obstruction charge.

This argument will surely continue if Trump’s impeachment in DC continues. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is considering an even more important issue related to this case.

Trump has argued that he is entitled to absolute immunity from criminal charges for anything that happened during his presidency — a position that, if confirmed by the justices, could cripple prosecutors in the District of Columbia and potentially other criminal cases he faces in Florida and Georgia.

The justices are expected to issue a ruling in the case on Monday.

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