Avoiding Obstruction Of Justice Charges: Evidence, The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, And You

Have you heard of the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act? Since 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) has changed the way that business executives need to keep their records if they want to stay out of jail. It's also opened the door for prosecution of anybody who destroys any sort of records pertinent to a federal investigation. This is what you should know.

It was designed to stop businesses from defrauding investors.

The original purpose behind the SOX was to prosecute corporate leaders who committed financial crimes against their own investors and who failed to keep accurate records (or purposefully altered and destroyed them). It's often referred to as an anti-document-shredding measure.

However, the language of the SOX doesn't limit its use to just those crimes. Instead, the broad wording has allowed federal prosecutors to use it against ordinary people who intentionally destroy, discard, hide, or otherwise alter any tangible information that could be used in a federal investigation.

It is being used to prosecute people for obstruction of justice.

The SOX is being used to prosecute ordinary people, not executives, for the crime of "obstruction of justice." Obstruction of justice is loosely defined as interfering with the lawful duty of prosecutors or other government officials as they go about their jobs catching and convicting criminals. This can be essentially anything that a court deems to be a purposeful hindrance to official justice, from bribes and threats to deleting your browser history at the wrong time.

The reason that prosecutors are turning to the SOX to prosecute obstruction of justice charges is that the language of the act regarding "intent" is broad enough to confer guilt in a variety of circumstances. The courts have generally held that the mere knowledge that a federal investigation might happen is enough to imply an intention to hinder it, should you destroy any incriminating digital or non-digital data.

For example, a friend of the Boston Marathon Bomber is facing prison for lying to police about some of the details of his interactions with the bomber before the event and for deleting his own internet browsing history after he spoke to police. There's no indication that he was involved in the actual bombings. Under the SOX, what he was trying to hide is irrelevant. He clearly knew that there was an investigation into his friend's activities and the law says that he had a duty to preserve any information that the federal investigators might want to see.

In some cases, the SOX is being used to punish criminals more harshly for destroying the evidence of their crimes than for the actual crimes themselves. For example, a man who hacked into Republican Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin's email account faced up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for deleting evidence of the hack from his computer's hard drive. The hack itself was only a misdemeanor. He was ultimately sentenced to 1 year in custody and 3 years on probation.

While he deleted the information prior to the start of any investigation into his activity, the court basically held that it was foreseeable that investigators would want the deleted information once the hack was exposed.

This broad interpretation of the law means that you could potentially face legal trouble just for having your browser set to automatically clean out the cache and history files from time to time, should the police ever want to look at what's on your computer.

If you find yourself, a family member, or a close friend under investigation for a crime, contact an attorney as soon as possible in order to protect your own interests. To find out more, speak with someone like Butts, Schneider & Butts LLP.

About Me

A Little Legal Know-how Helps Everyone in Life

When I was a child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always told them I wanted to be a lawyer. I even followed an attorney one day during a school job shadowing experience. I really found the law interesting, and my favorite shows to watch were, and still are, court shows. However, when it came time to choose a major in college, I chose another career path that I now enjoy. However, I still love law and do some legal research on a regular basis just for fun. I decided that it would be a shame to let all of my legal knowledge "go to waste" by not sharing it with others, so I decided to start a blog to share my legal tips on along with some interesting legal cases and stories. I hope you come back often!

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