Marinello v. United States,
584 U.S. ___ (2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

In 2004-2009, the IRS investigated Marinello’s tax activities. In 2012, Marinello was indicted for violating 26 U.S.C. 7212(a) (the Omnibus Clause), which forbids “corruptly or by force or threats of force . . . obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration” of the Internal Revenue Code. The judge instructed the jury that it must find that Marinello “corruptly” engaged in at least one specified activity, but was not told that it needed to find that Marinello knew he was under investigation and intended corruptly to interfere with that investigation. The Second Circuit affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court reversed. To convict a defendant under the Omnibus Clause, the government must prove the defendant was aware of a pending tax-related proceeding, such as a particular investigation or audit, or could reasonably foresee that such a proceeding would commence. The verbs “obstruct” and “impede” require an object. The object in 7212(a) is the “due administration of [the Tax Code],” referring to discrete targeted administrative acts rather than every conceivable task involved in the Tax Code’s administration. In context, the Omnibus Clause serves as a “catchall” for the obstructive conduct the subsection sets forth, not for every violation that interferes with routine administrative procedures. A broader reading could result in a lack of fair warning. Just because a taxpayer knows that the IRS will review her tax return annually does not transform every Tax Code violation into an obstruction charge.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Stephen G. Breyer)  | 
  • Dissent (Clarence Thomas)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

Marinello v. United States

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

No. 16–1144. Argued December 6, 2017—Decided March 21, 2018

Between 2004 and 2009, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) intermittently investigated petitioner Marinello’s tax activities. In 2012, the Government indicted Marinello for violating, among other criminal tax statutes, a provision in 26 U. S. C. §7212(a) known as the Omnibus Clause, which forbids “corruptly or by force or threats of force . . . obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration of [the Internal Revenue Code].” The judge instructed the jury that, to convict Marinello of an Omnibus Clause violation, it must find that he “corruptly” engaged in at least one of eight specified activities, but the jury was not told that it needed to find that Marinello knew he was under investigation and intended corruptly to interfere with that investigation. Marinello was convicted. The Second Circuit affirmed, rejecting his claim that an Omnibus Clause violation requires the Government to show the defendant tried to interfere with a pending IRS proceeding, such as a particular investigation.

Held: To convict a defendant under the Omnibus Clause, the Government must prove the defendant was aware of a pending tax-related proceeding, such as a particular investigation or audit, or could reasonably foresee that such a proceeding would commence. Pp. 3–11.

(a) In United States v. Aguilar, 515 U. S. 593 , this Court interpreted a similarly worded criminal statute—which made it a felony “corruptly or by threats or force . . . [to] influenc[e], obstruc[t], or imped[e], or endeavo[r] to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice,” 18 U. S. C. §1503(a). There, the Court required the Government to show there was a “nexus” between the defendant’s obstructive conduct and a particular judicial proceeding. The Court said that the defendant’s “act must have a relationship in time, causation, or logic with the judicial proceedings.” 515 U. S., at 599. In reaching this conclusion, the Court emphasized that it has “traditionally exercised restraint in assessing the reach of a federal criminal statute, both out of deference to the prerogatives of Congress and out of concern that ‘a fair warning should be given to the world in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do if a certain line is passed.’ ” Id., at 600. That reasoning applies here with similar strength. The verbs “obstruct” and “impede” require an object. The taxpayer must hinder a particular person or thing. The object in §7212(a) is the “due administration of [the Tax Code].” That phrase is best viewed, like the “due administration of justice” in Aguilar, as referring to discrete targeted administrative acts rather than every conceivable task involved in the Tax Code’s administration. Statutory context confirms this reading. The Omnibus Clause appears in the middle of a sentence that refers to efforts to “intimidate or impede any officer or employee of the United States acting in an official capacity.” §7212(a). The first part of the sentence also refers to “force or threats of force,” which the statute elsewhere defines as “threats of bodily harm to the officer or employee of the United States or to a member of his family.” Ibid. And §7212(b) refers to the “forcibl[e] rescu[e]” of “any property after it shall have been seized under” the Internal Revenue Code. Subsections (a) and (b) thus refer to corrupt or forceful actions taken against individual identifiable persons or property. In context, the Omnibus Clause logically serves as a “catchall” for the obstructive conduct the subsection sets forth, not for every violation that interferes with routine administrative procedures such as the processing of tax returns, receipt of tax payments, or issuance of tax refunds. The statute’s legislative history does not suggest otherwise. The broader context of the full Internal Revenue Code also counsels against a broad reading. Interpreting the Omnibus Clause to apply to all Code administration could transform the Code’s numerous misdemeanor provisions into felonies, making them redundant or perhaps the subject matter of plea bargaining. It could also result in a similar lack of fair warning and related kinds of unfairness that led this Court to “exercise” interpretive “restraint” in Aguilar. See 515 U. S., at 600. The Government claims that the “corrupt state of mind” requirement will cure any overbreadth problem, but it is difficult to imagine a scenario when that requirement will make a practical difference in the context of federal tax prosecutions. And to rely on prosecutorial discretion to narrow the otherwise wide-ranging scope of a criminal statute’s general language places too much power in the prosecutor’s hands. Pp. 3–9.

(b) Following the same approach taken in similar cases, the Government here must show that there is a “nexus” between the defendant’s conduct and a particular administrative proceeding, such as an investigation, an audit, or other targeted administrative action. See Aguilar, supra, at 599. The term “particular administrative proceeding” does not mean every act carried out by IRS employees in the course of their administration of the Tax Code. Just because a taxpayer knows that the IRS will review her tax return annually does not transform every Tax Code violation into an obstruction charge. In addition to satisfying the nexus requirement, the Government must show that the proceeding was pending at the time the defendant engaged in the obstructive conduct or, at the least, was then reasonably foreseeable by the defendant. See Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, 544 U. S. 696 –708. Pp. 9–11.

839 F. 3d 209, reversed and remanded.

Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Alito, J., joined.

Primary Holding

To convict a defendant of obstruction under the Tax Code's Omnibus Clause, the government must prove the defendant was aware of a pending tax-related proceeding.

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