A federal judge tossed an obstruction charge against a defendant charged with breaching the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, a ruling that could reverberate across hundreds of cases stemming from the attack on Congress, Politico reports. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols ruled that ambiguities in the federal obstruction law required him to narrow the case against defendant Garret Miller, who is facing multiple felony charges connected to the attack. Nichols ruled defendants can be charged with obstruction only if they directly attempt to affect “a document, record, or other object” to hamper the ability of Congress to count Electoral College votes. Nichols said that because prosecutors had not alleged that Miller took such direct action — the Justice Department says he simply joined the large mob on Jan. 6 — the obstruction charge must be dismissed.
The ruling from Nichols, a Trump appointee, is at odds with decisions from other judges in Washington, D.C., who have considered similar issues in cases stemming from the storming of the Capitol and concluded that the obstruction law does cover efforts to “corruptly” interfere with the ability of Congress to tally electoral votes. All judges to address these issues so far, including Nichols, have accepted prosecutors’ argument that the counting of the electoral votes amounted to an “official proceeding” that could be obstructed. Nichols said, however, that prosecutors had to allege some connection to documents, and that the charges against Miller didn’t make clear enough that he was accused of trying to interfere directly with the records involved in the process of receiving the votes and counting objections. Nichols seemed to leave open the possibility that prosecutors could seek a new indictment against Miller making specific allegations about interfering with Congress’ records.