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

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

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 16–1144

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CARLO J. MARINELLO, II, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES

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

[March 21, 2018]

Justice Breyer delivered the opinion of the Court.

A clause in §7212(a) of the Internal Revenue Code makes it a felony “corruptly or by force” to “endeavo[r] to obstruct or imped[e] the due administration of this title.” 26 U. S. C. §7212(a). The question here concerns the breadth of that statutory phrase. Does it cover virtually all governmental efforts to collect taxes? Or does it have a narrower scope? In our view, “due administration of [the Tax Code]” does not cover routine administrative procedures that are near-universally applied to all taxpayers, such as the ordinary processing of income tax returns. Rather, the clause as a whole refers to specific interference with targeted governmental tax-related proceedings, such as a particular investigation or audit.

I

The Internal Revenue Code provision at issue, §7212(a), has two substantive clauses. The first clause, which we shall call the “Officer Clause,” forbids

“corruptly or by force or threats of force (including any threatening letter or communication) endeavor[ing] to intimidate or impede any officer or employee of the United States acting in an official capacity under [the Internal Revenue Code].” Ibid. (emphasis added).

The second clause, which we shall call the “Omnibus Clause,” forbids

“corruptly or by force or threats of force (including any threatening letter or communication) obstruct[ing] or imped[ing], or endeavor[ing] to obstruct or impede, the due administration of [the Internal Revenue Code].” Ibid. (emphasis added).

As we said at the outset, we here consider the scope of the Omnibus Clause. (We have placed the full text of §7212 in the Appendix, infra.)

Between 2004 and 2009, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) opened, then closed, then reopened an investigation into the tax activities of Carlo Marinello, the petitioner here. In 2012 the Government indicted Marinello, charging him with violations of several criminal tax statutes including the Omnibus Clause. In respect to the Omnibus Clause the Government claimed that Marinello had engaged in at least one of eight different specified activities, including “failing to maintain corporate books and records,” “failing to provide” his tax accountant “with complete and accurate” tax “information,” “destroying . . . business records,” “hiding income,” and “paying employees . . . with cash.” 839 F. 3d 209, 213 (CA2 2016).

Before the jury retired to consider the charges, the judge instructed it that, to convict Marinello of violating the Omnibus Clause, it must find unanimously that he engaged in at least one of the eight practices just mentioned, that the jurors need not agree on which one, and that he did so “corruptly,” meaning “with the intent to secure an unlawful advantage or benefit, either for [himself ] or for another.” App. in No. 15–2224 (CA2), p. 432. The judge, however, did not instruct the jury that it must find that Marinello knew he was under investigation and intended corruptly to interfere with that investigation. The jury subsequently convicted Marinello on all counts.

Marinello appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He argued, among other things, that a violation of the Omnibus Clause requires the Government to show that the defendant had tried to interfere with a “pending IRS proceeding,” such as a particular investigation. Brief for Appellant in No. 15–2224, pp. 23–25. The appeals court disagreed. It held that a defendant need not possess “ ‘an awareness of a particular [IRS] action or investigation.’ ” 839 F. 3d, at 221 (quoting United States v. Wood, 384 Fed. Appx. 698, 704 (CA2 2010); alteration in original). The full Court of Appeals rejected Marinello’s petition for rehearing, two judges dissenting. 855 F. 3d 455 (CA2 2017).

Marinello then petitioned for certiorari, asking us to decide whether the Omnibus Clause requires the Government to prove the defendant was aware of “a pending IRS action or proceeding, such as an investigation or audit,” when he “engaged in the purportedly obstructive conduct.” Pet. for Cert. i. In light of a division of opinion among the Circuits on this point, we granted the petition. Compare United States v. Kassouf, 144 F. 3d 952 (CA6 1998) (requiring showing of a pending proceeding), with 839 F. 3d, at 221 (disagreeing with Kassouf ).

II

In United States v. Aguilar, 515 U. S. 593 (1995) , we interpreted a similarly worded criminal statute. That statute made it a felony “corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, [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). The statute concerned not (as here) “the due administration of” the Internal Revenue Code but rather “the due administration of justice.” (We have placed the full text of §1503 in the Appendix, infra.)

In interpreting that statute we pointed to earlier cases in which courts had held that the Government must prove “an intent to influence judicial or grand jury proceedings.” Aguilar, supra, at 599 (citing United States v. Brown, 688 F. 2d 596, 598 (CA9 1982)). We noted that some courts had imposed a “ ‘nexus’ requirement”: that the defendant’s “act must have a relationship in time, causation, or logic with the judicial proceedings.” Aguilar, supra, at 599 (citing United States v. Wood, 6 F. 3d 692, 696 (CA10 1993), and United States v. Walasek, 527 F. 2d 676, 679, and n. 12 (CA3 1975)). And we adopted the same requirement.

We set forth two important reasons for doing so. We wrote that we “have 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.’ ” Aguilar, supra, at 600 (quoting McBoyle v. United States, 283 U. S. 25, 27 (1931) ; citation omitted). Both reasons apply here with similar strength.

As to Congress’ intent, the literal language of the statute is neutral. The statutory words “obstruct or impede” are broad. They can refer to anything that “block[s],” “make[s] difficult,” or “hinder[s].” Black’s Law Dictionary 1246 (10th ed. 2014) (obstruct); Webster’s New International Dictionary (Webster’s) 1248 (2d ed. 1954) (impede); id., at 1682 (obstruct); accord, 5 Oxford English Dictionary 80 (1933) (impede); 7 id., at 36 (obstruct). But the verbs “obstruct” and “impede” suggest an object—the taxpayer must hinder a particular person or thing. Here, the object is the “due administration of this title.” The word “administration” can be read literally to refer to every “[a]ct or process of administering” including every act of “managing” or “conduct[ing]” any “office,” or “performing the executive duties of” any “institution, business, or the like.” Webster’s 34. But the whole phrase—the due administration of the Tax Code—is best viewed, like the due administration of justice, as referring to only some of those acts or to some separable parts of an institution or business. Cf. Aguilar, supra, at 600–601 (concluding false statements made to an investigating agent, rather than a grand jury, do not support a conviction for obstruction of justice).

Here statutory context confirms that the text refers to specific, targeted acts of administration. The Omnibus Clause appears in the middle of a statutory sentence that refers specifically to efforts to “intimidate or impede any officer or employee of the United States acting in an official capacity.” 26 U. S. C. §7212(a) (emphasis added). 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. (emphasis added). The following subsection refers to the “forcibl[e] rescu[e]” of “any property after it shall have been seized under” the Internal Revenue Code. §7212(b) (emphasis added). Subsections (a) and (b) thus refer to corrupt or forceful actions taken against individual identifiable persons or property. And, in that context the Omnibus Clause logically serves as a “catchall” in respect to the obstructive conduct the subsection sets forth, not as a “catchall” for every violation that interferes with what the Government describes as the “continuous, ubiquitous, and universally known” administration of the Internal Revenue Code. Brief in Opposition 9.

Those who find legislative history helpful can find confirmation of the more limited scope of the Omnibus Clause in the House and Senate Reports written when Congress first enacted the Omnibus Clause. See H. R. Rep. No. 1337, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. (1954); S. Rep. No. 1622, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. (1954). According to the House Report, §7212 “provides for the punishment of threats or threatening acts against agents of the Internal Revenue Service, or any other officer or employee of the United States, or members of the families of such persons, on account of the performance by such agents or officers or employees of their official duties” and “will also punish the corrupt solicitation of an internal revenue employee.” H. R. Rep. No. 1337, at A426 (emphasis added). The Senate Report also refers to the section as aimed at targeting officers and employees. It says that §7212 “covers all cases where the officer is intimidated or injured; that is, where corruptly, by force or threat of force, directly or by communication, an attempt is made to impede the administration of the internal-revenue laws.” S. Rep. No. 1622, at 147 (emphasis added). We have found nothing in the statute’s history suggesting that Congress intended the Omnibus Clause as a catchall applicable to the entire Code including the routine processing of tax returns, receipt of tax payments, and issuance of tax refunds.

Viewing the Omnibus Clause in the broader statutory context of the full Internal Revenue Code also counsels against adopting the Government’s broad reading. That is because the Code creates numerous misdemeanors, ranging from willful failure to furnish a required statement to employees, §7204, to failure to keep required records, §7203, to misrepresenting the number of exemptions to which an employee is entitled on IRS Form W–4, §7205, to failure to pay any tax owed, however small the amount, §7203. To interpret the Omnibus Clause as applying to all Code administration would potentially transform many, if not all, of these misdemeanor provisions into felonies, making the specific provisions redundant, or perhaps the subject matter of plea bargaining. Some overlap in criminal provisions is, of course, inevitable. See, e.g., Sansone v. United States, 380 U. S. 343, 349 (1965) (affirming conviction for tax evasion despite overlap with other provisions). Indeed, as the dissent notes, post, at 8 (opinion of Thomas, J.), Marinello’s preferred reading of §7212 potentially overlaps with another provision of federal law that criminalizes the obstruction of the “due and proper administration of the law under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States,” 18 U. S. C. §1505. But we have not found any case from this Court interpreting a statutory provision that would create overlap and redundancy to the degree that would result from the Government’s broad reading of §7212—particularly when it would “ ‘render superfluous other provisions in the same enactment.’ ” Freytag v. Commissioner, 501 U. S. 868, 877 (1991) (quoting Pennsylvania Dept. of Public Welfare v. Davenport, 495 U. S. 552, 562 (1990) ; see also Yates v. United States, 574 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (plurality opinion) (slip op., at 13).

A broad interpretation would also risk the lack of fair warning and related kinds of unfairness that led this Court in Aguilar to “exercise” interpretive “restraint.” See 515 U. S., at 600; see also Yates, supra, at ___–___ (slip op., at 18–19); Arthur Andersen LLP v. United States, 544 U. S. 696 –704 (2005). Interpreted broadly, the provision could apply to a person who pays a babysitter $41 per week in cash without withholding taxes, see 26 CFR §31.3102–1(a)(2017); IRS, Publication 926, pp. 5–6 (2018), leaves a large cash tip in a restaurant, fails to keep donation receipts from every charity to which he or she contributes, or fails to provide every record to an accountant. Such an individual may sometimes believe that, in doing so, he is running the risk of having violated an IRS rule, but we sincerely doubt he would believe he is facing a potential felony prosecution for tax obstruction. Had Congress intended that outcome, it would have spoken with more clarity than it did in §7212(a).

The Government argues that the need to show the defendant’s obstructive conduct was done “corruptly” will cure any overbreadth problem. But we do not see how. The Government asserts that “corruptly” means acting with “the specific intent to obtain an unlawful advantage” for the defendant or another. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 37; accord, 839 F. 3d, at 218. Yet, practically speaking, we struggle to imagine a scenario where a taxpayer would “willfully” violate the Tax Code (the mens rea requirement of various tax crimes, including misdemeanors, see, e.g., 26 U. S. C. §§7203, 7204, 7207) without intending someone to obtain an unlawful advantage. See Cheek v. United States, 498 U. S. 192, 201 (1991) (“Willfulness . . . requires the Government to prove that the law imposed a duty on the defendant, that the defendant knew of this duty, and that he voluntarily and intentionally violated that duty”) A taxpayer may know with a fair degree of certainty that her babysitter will not declare a cash payment as income—and, if so, a jury could readily find that the taxpayer acted to obtain an unlawful benefit for another. For the same reason, we find unconvincing the dissent’s argument that the distinction between “willfully” and “corruptly”—at least as defined by the Government—reflects any meaningful difference in culpability. See post, at 6–7.

Neither can we rely upon prosecutorial discretion to narrow the statute’s scope. True, the Government used the Omnibus Clause only sparingly during the first few decades after its enactment. But it used the clause more often after the early 1990’s. Brief for Petitioner 9. And, at oral argument the Government told us that, where more punitive and less punitive criminal provisions both apply to a defendant’s conduct, the Government will charge a violation of the more punitive provision as long as it can readily prove that violation at trial. Tr. of Oral Arg. 46–47, 55–57; see Office of the Attorney General, Department Charging and Sentencing Policy (May 10, 2017), online at http://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/ file/965896/download (as last visited Mar. 16, 2018).

Regardless, to rely upon prosecutorial discretion to narrow the otherwise wide-ranging scope of a criminal statute’s highly abstract general statutory language places great power in the hands of the prosecutor. Doing so risks allowing “policemen, prosecutors, and juries to pursue their personal predilections,” Smith v. Goguen, 415 U. S. 566, 575 (1974) , which could result in the nonuniform execution of that power across time and geographic location. And insofar as the public fears arbitrary prosecution, it risks undermining necessary confidence in the criminal justice system. That is one reason why we have said that we “cannot construe a criminal statute on the assumption that the Government will ‘use it responsibly.’ ” McDonnell v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 23) (quoting United States v. Stevens, 559 U. S. 460, 480 (2010) ). And it is why “[w]e have traditionally exercised restraint in assessing the reach of a federal criminal statute.” Aguilar, supra, at 600.

III

In sum, we follow the approach we have taken in similar cases in interpreting §7212(a)’s Omnibus Clause. To be sure, the language and history of the provision at issue here differ somewhat from that of other obstruction provisions we have considered in the past. See Aguilar, supra (interpreting a statute prohibiting the obstruction of “the due administration of justice”); Arthur Andersen, supra (interpreting a statute prohibiting the destruction of an object with intent to impair its integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding); Yates, supra (interpreting a statute prohibiting the destruction, concealment, or covering up of any “record, document, or tangible object with the intent to” obstruct the “investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States”). The Government and the dissent urge us to ignore these precedents because of those differences. The dissent points out, for example, that the predecessor to the obstruction statute we interpreted in Aguilar, 18 U. S. C. §1503, prohibited influencing, intimidating, or impeding “any witness or officer in any court of the United States” or endeavoring “to obstruct or imped[e] the due administration of justice therein.” Pettibone v. United States, 148 U. S. 197, 202 (1893) (citing Rev. Stat. §5399; emphasis added); see post, at 9. But Congress subsequently deleted the word “therein,” leaving only a broadly worded prohibition against obstruction of “the due administration of justice.” Act of June 25, 1948, §1503, 62Stat. 769–770. Congress then used that same amended formulation when it enacted §7212, prohibiting the “obstruction of the due administration” of the Tax Code. Internal Revenue Code of 1954, 68A Stat. 855. Given this similarity, it is helpful to consider how we have interpreted §1503 and other obstruction statutes in considering §7212. The language of some and the underlying principles of all these cases are similar. We consequently find these precedents—though not controlling—highly instructive for use as a guide toward a proper resolution of the issue now before us. See Smith v. City of Jackson, 544 U. S. 228, 233 (2005) .

We conclude that, to secure a conviction under the Omnibus Clause, the Government must show (among other things) 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. That nexus requires a “relationship in time, causation, or logic with the [administrative] proceeding.” Aguilar, 515 U. S., at 599 (citing Wood, 6 F. 3d, at 696). By “particular administrative proceeding” we do not mean every act carried out by IRS employees in the course of their “continuous, ubiquitous, and universally known” administration of the Tax Code. Brief in Opposition 9. While we need not here exhaustively itemize the types of administrative conduct that fall within the scope of the statute, that conduct does not include routine, day-to-day work carried out in the ordinary course by the IRS, such as the review of tax returns. The Government contends the processing of tax returns is part of the administration of the Internal Revenue Code and any corrupt effort to interfere with that task can therefore serve as the basis of an obstruction conviction. But the same could have been said of the defendant’s effort to mislead the investigating agent in Aguilar. The agent’s investigation was, at least in some broad sense, a part of the administration of justice. But we nevertheless held the defendant’s conduct did not support an obstruction charge. 515 U. S., at 600. In light of our decision in Aguilar, we find it appropriate to construe §7212’s Omnibus Clause more narrowly than the Government proposes. Just because a taxpayer knows that the IRS will review her tax return every year does not transform every violation of the Tax Code into an obstruction charge.

In addition to satisfying this 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, 544 U. S., at 703, 707–708 (requiring the Government to prove a proceeding was foreseeable in order to convict a defendant for persuading others to shred documents to prevent their “use in an official proceeding”). It is not enough for the Government to claim that the defendant knew the IRS may catch on to his unlawful scheme eventually. To use a maritime analogy, the proceeding must at least be in the offing.

For these reasons, the Second Circuit’s judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

APPENDIX

26 U. S. C. §7212: “Attempts to interfere with administration of internal revenue laws

“(a) Corrupt or forcible interference

“Whoever corruptly or by force or threats of force (including any threatening letter or communication) endeavors to intimidate or impede any officer or employee of the United States acting in an official capacity under this title, or in any other way corruptly or by force or threats of force (including any threatening letter or communication) obstructs or impedes, or endeavors to obstruct or impede, the due administration of this title, shall, upon conviction thereof, be fined not more than $5,000, or imprisoned not more than 3 years, or both, except that if the offense is committed only by threats of force, the person convicted thereof shall be fined not more than $3,000, or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both. The term ‘threats of force’, as used in this subsection, means threats of bodily harm to the officer or employee of the United States or to a member of his family.

“(b) Forcible rescue of seized property

“Any person who forcibly rescues or causes to be rescued any property after it shall have been seized under this title, or shall attempt or endeavor so to do, shall, excepting in cases otherwise provided for, for every such offense, be fined not more than $500, or not more than double the value of the property so rescued, whichever is the greater, or be imprisoned not more than 2 years.”

18 U. S. C. §1503: “Influencing or injuring officer or juror generally

“(a) Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede any grand or petit juror, or officer in or of any court of the United States, or officer who may be serving at any examination or other proceeding before any United States magistrate judge or other committing magistrate, in the discharge of his duty, or injures any such grand or petit juror in his person or property on account of any verdict or indictment assented to by him, or on account of his being or having been such juror, or injures any such officer, magistrate judge, or other committing magistrate in his person or property on account of the performance of his official duties, or corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b). If the offense under this section occurs in connection with a trial of a criminal case, and the act in violation of this section involves the threat of physical force or physical force, the maximum term of imprisonment which may be imposed for the offense shall be the higher of that otherwise provided by law or the maximum term that could have been imposed for any offense charged in such case.

“(b) The punishment for an offense under this section is—

“(1) in the case of a killing, the punishment provided in sections 1111 and 1112;

“(2) in the case of an attempted killing, or a case in which the offense was committed against a petit juror and in which a class A or B felony was charged, imprisonment for not more than 20 years, a fine under this title, or both; and

“(3) in any other case, imprisonment for not more than 10 years, a fine under this title, or both.”

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