Culture Wars/Current Controversies

To Prosecute Jan. 6 Capitol Rioters, Government Tests Novel Legal Strategy

By Aruna Viswanatha, Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—The U.S. criminal investigation into the Jan. 6 Capitol riot is entering a more contentious phase as it nears the one-year mark, with initial trials set to test the government’s strategy of using provisions first laid out in a 2002 financial-industry law to prosecute some accused of leading the mob.

Around 700 people who stormed the building while Congress met to certify President Biden’s win have been arrested this year, including more than 200 who face charges of assaulting officers or engaging in other violent conduct. About 150 of the rioters have pleaded guilty, many to misdemeanor crimes including entering a restricted federal building.

The attack left more than 100 police officers injured and caused millions of dollars in damage as hundreds of supporters of then-President Donald Trump, some clad in military battle gear, mobbed the seat of the Legislative Branch in a bid to stop the certification, forcing Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to evacuate as chaos engulfed the building.

In the riot’s wake, prosecutors searched for tools to elevate some of the cases beyond the misdemeanor charges often applied for unruly but far less momentous Capitol protests. They turned to a provision in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, enacted after the accounting-fraud scandal and collapse of Enron, which imposes a potential 20-year sentence on those convicted of obstructing an “official proceeding.” The measure expanded what counts as obstruction and closed loopholes used by people involved in the Enron fraud.

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