“Obey the letter of the law,” is a phrase shouted by the touch on crime crowd. They believe all laws, not matter how asinine, should be obeyed exactly as written and if you fail to do so you deserve everything that comes to you. It’s an attitude that requires a complete lack of critical thinking ability, especially today when so many laws are so ridiculous that it’s impossible to actually comply with them. Furthermore the volumes of legalese that rule our lives are so large that it’s impossible to know every law. For example, did you know that it’s a felony to clear your browser history under certain circumstances? I bet you didn’t. But it is:
Khairullozhon Matanov is a 24-year-old former cab driver from Quincy, Massachusetts. The night of the Boston Marathon bombings, he ate dinner with Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev at a kebob restaurant in Somerville. Four days later Matanov saw photographs of his friends listed as suspects in the bombings on the CNN and FBI websites. Later that day he went to the local police. He told them that he knew the Tsarnaev brothers and that they’d had dinner together that week, but he lied about whose idea it was to have dinner, lied about when exactly he had looked at the Tsarnaevs’ photos on the Internet, lied about whether Tamerlan lived with his wife and daughter, and lied about when he and Tamerlan had last prayed together. Matanov likely lied to distance himself from the brothers or to cover up his own jihadist sympathies—or maybe he was just confused.
Then Matanov went home and cleared his Internet browser history.
Matanov continued to live in Quincy for over a year after the bombings. During this time the FBI tracked him with a drone-like surveillance plane that made loops around Quincy, disturbing residents. The feds finally arrested and indicted him in May 2014. They never alleged that Matanov was involved in the bombings or that he knew about them beforehand, but they charged him with four counts of obstruction of justice. There were three counts for making false statements based on the aforementioned lies and—remarkably—one count for destroying “any record, document or tangible object” with intent to obstruct a federal investigation. This last charge was for deleting videos on his computer that may have demonstrated his own terrorist sympathies and for clearing his browser history.
Matanov faced the possibility of decades in prison—twenty years for the records-destruction charge alone.
Federal prosecutors charged Matanov for destroying records under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a law enacted by Congress in the wake of the Enron scandal. The law was, in part, intended to prohibit corporations under federal investigation from shredding incriminating documents. But since Sarbanes-Oxley was passed in 2002 federal prosecutors have applied the law to a wider range of activities. A police officer in Colorado who falsified a report to cover up a brutality case was convicted under the act, as was a woman in Illinois who destroyed her boyfriend’s child pornography.
Prosecutors are able to apply the law broadly because they do not have to show that the person deleting evidence knew there was an investigation underway. In other words, a person could theoretically be charged under Sarbanes-Oxley for deleting her dealer’s number from her phone even if she were unaware that the feds were getting a search warrant to find her marijuana. The application of the law to digital data has been particularly far-reaching because this type of information is so easy to delete. Deleting digital data can inadvertently occur in normal computer use, and often does.
Matanov is the victim of a practice that is far too common in the United States. Wanting to nail him to the wall the state applied every law it could to increase the number of charges. It’s the legal version of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. With the massive library of laws available to a prosecutor it’s impossible for any individual to avoid being charged with something. In this case one of the charges was applied simply because he cleared his browser history.
What’s most worrisome about this case is that no sane person would consider clearing their browser history a felony unless, perhaps, they knew they were being investigated. But even that final case is irrelevant here because Sarbanes-Oxley doesn’t leave any exception for an individual being entirely unaware that they’re being investigated.
When laws are so numerous that nobody can know them all and so ridiculous that no sane person can comprehend them then the trial system ceases to be fair as it advantages the prosecution to an insurmountable degree.