It's a normal practice for many people to clear their browser histories after surfing the Internet, especially if they're using public computers accessible to others. Strangely enough, though, this simple common act can cause you to be hit with an obstruction of justice charge and face several years of jail time as a result. Here's more information about this issue.
The Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Passed in 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a list of rules and regulations aimed at stopping fraud and increasing accountability, among other things, in corporate enterprises. The development of this legislation was inspired by the Enron, Worldcom, and similar financial scandals that occurred in the years before the law was enacted.
While the law was designed to be primarily applied to corporations, law enforcement agencies have been using a specific portion of the legislation to charge and convict private citizens for deleting or erasing their digital trails.
Section 802 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act prohibits people from altering, destroying, mutilating, concealing, or otherwise falsifying records, documents, and other materials with the intent to prevent law enforcement agencies from conducting investigations. It was intended to keep company employees and representatives from destroying evidence that could help convict perpetrators of wrongdoing such as deleting emails or shredding documents.
Instead, law enforcement officials have used it to charge and convict private citizens of obstruction of justice and similar infractions for doing simple things such as clearing their browser histories. For instance, federal prosecutors used Sarbanes-Oxley to force Khairullozhon Matanov, a friend of the Boston Marathon bombers, to take a 30-month plea deal for 4 counts of obstruction of justice. Among other things, Matanov had cleared his Internet history and deleted videos stored on his computer that may have shown he was sympathetic to terrorist causes. The person who hacked Sarah Palin's email account was also charged and convicted under this law because he erased all evidence of the hack from his computer.
Too Much Overreach
While it does make sense to have a law that discourage people from destroying evidence, Sarbanes-Oxley gives too much power to law enforcement agencies because it allows them to charge people even if the individuals did not know there was an investigation underway that required them to retain the relevant information. So a person who discovers his or her spouse viewed illegal material on the Internet and clears the browser history to prevent other family members from discovering it could be charged and convicted under Sarbanes-Oxley even if they didn't know the police were looking into the matter.
As you can imagine, this type of broad power can lead to abuse and may even qualify as a violation of the affected person's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Unfortunately, at this time, neither the Supreme Court nor any other legislative body has attempted to address this oversight by limiting the reach of law enforcement or defining just how far the agencies can go with applying the law.
Therefore, it's essential that you speak to a criminal defense attorney if law enforcement officials attempt to charge you with obstruction of justice using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The attorney can evaluate the circumstances of the case and develop a legal strategy that may help you avoid being convicted. Contact a firm like Kalasnik Law Office for more information about how this law may affect you.