High Court Criminal Tax Ruling Is Part Of A Trend

March 26, 2018

In a 7-2 decision authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, Marinello v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court added the so-called “omnibus clause” of 26 U.S.C. § 7212(a) to the growing list of obstruction statutes in need of some “interpretive ‘restraint.’”[1] The omnibus clause forbids “corruptly ... obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration of [the Internal Revenue Code].”[2] The majority analogized the omnibus clause to 18 U.S.C. § 1503, which was construed by the court in United States v. Aguilar in 1995. Like the omnibus clause, Section 1503 makes it a crime to “corruptly ... influence[], obstruct[], or impede[] ... the due administration of justice.” The court held that the omnibus clause, like Section 1503, must be interpreted to prohibit only obstructive conduct that has a “nexus” to a particular proceeding.

Marinello follows three prior rulings that have narrowed the reach of obstruction of justice statutes in white collar criminal investigations: Aguilar (1995), Arthur Andersen v. United States (2005) and Yates v. United States (2015). As in Marinello, the Supreme Court elected to read broad obstruction statutes more narrowly than suggested by the statutes’ plain language. The court’s recurring concern remains that the government cannot be entrusted to enforce wisely a broad obstruction of justice statute, and should have its discretion limited in order to prevent injustice.

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