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Erasing the Past: How Clearing Your Browser History Could Land You in Prison

Khairullozhon Matanov could have said nothing. Instead, the 24-year-old taxi driver voluntarily told police what he knew about his friends Tamerlan and Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, the two brothers who set off bombs near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. He told police he had dinner with the Tsarnaev brothers the night of the bombing, but lied about some of the other aspects of his relationship to the brothers. Matanov changed his story about facts such as whether Tamerlan Tsarnaev lived with him and his family, and when they last prayed together.

Erasing Internet HistoryWhile lying to the police can lead to charges of obstruction of justice, Matanov’s real troubles did not begin until he went home after speaking with the police. When he got home, he got on his computer, opened up his Internet browser, and erased the history of his searches and page views. That simple act – one that countless people do on their computers every day – could have resulted in Matanov receiving up to 20 years in federal prison.1

Fearing that he could spend decades in prison, Matanov accepted a plea agreement with federal prosecutors. In exchange for pleading guilty, the prosecution recommended that Matanov serve 30 months in prison.

The Scandal That Changed the Law

Matanov is facing charges of destruction of evidence under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a 2002 law that Congress passed in response to the corporate accounting scandals by companies such as Enron. The scandals involved “cooking” the books to hide billions of dollars in debt and failed enterprises. Once the truth about the failures came to light, investors lost billions as the companies’ stock prices fell.

So how does a cab driver violate a law designed to protect investors by improving the accuracy and reliability of corporate disclosures that must be made in accordance with securities laws? The reason is that a provision of Sarbanes-Oxley allows the federal government to punish anyone who destroys, alters or falsifies records to obstruct a federal investigation. Specifically, a person commits a federal crime punishable by 20 years in prison if he or she:

“…knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case…”2

The Long Arm of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act

Destroying Evidence CrimeThe phrase “in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case” is particularly important. Essentially, that language gives the government the power to charge a violation of Sarbanes-Oxley for destroying evidence in any “foreseeable” investigation.

Matanov is not the first individual that has been the target of a criminal charge under this act. David Kernell, a student at the University of Tennessee, was convicted in 2010 of violating Sarbanes-Oxley when he attempted to cover up hacking into the email account of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Kernell was not under investigation at the time he deleted his browser history, uninstalled the browser and defragmented his hard drive. Nevertheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the sentence on the grounds that his actions showed that he was aware that a potential investigation was possible.3

Making Criminals Out of Everyone?

Does this mean that anyone who has ever deleted his or her web browser’s history is potentially violating the law? Under the federal government’s use of this rule, it certainly seems that way.

The government’s extremely broad interpretation of this rule has been challenged in the Supreme Court. Yates v. United States (2014) involved a fishing boat captain who threw a batch of undersized fish back into the ocean against the order of a federal agent inspecting the vessel for compliance with conservation regulations. The Court held that the fish were not “tangible objects” under Sarbanes-Oxley, and that the federal government had wandered too far from the spirit of a law that was designed to curb corporate fraud.4

This case could be the path forward in narrowing the scope of the data destruction provision of Sarbanes-Oxley, but in the meantime, there will undoubtedly be other people like Matanov, who become criminals with a few clicks of their mouse.

Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys at Wallin & Klarich Right Away

If you think you might be the target of a federal investigation, and you are unsure what you should do next, your first step should be to contact an attorney who has experience defending people against federal charges. At Wallin & Klarich, our criminal defense attorneys have been successfully defending our clients facing federal criminal charges for over 35 years. Let us help you, too.

With offices in Los Angeles, Torrance, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, West Covina and Victorville, there is a Wallin & Klarich attorney experienced in federal criminal defense near you no matter where you work or live.

Call us today at (888) 280-6839 for a free, no obligation phone consultation. We will be there when you call.


1. [Polly Mosendz, “Khairullozhon Matanov, Friend of Accused Boston Bomber, Pleads Guilty to Lying to FBI,” Newsweek, March 24, 2015, available at http://www.newsweek.com/khairullozhon-matanov-friend-accused-boston-bomber-pleads-guilty-lying-fbi-316539]
2. [18 U.S.C. § 1519 – Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy]
3. [Juliana DeVries, “You Can Be Prosecuted for Clearing Your Browser History,” The Nation, June 2, 2015, available at http://www.thenation.com/article/208593/you-can-be-prosecuted-clearing-your-browser-history]
4. [Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451, February 25, 2015.]

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