The U.S. Supreme Court reversed an individual’s conviction for obstructing tax law administration. The government failed to show that the individual knew that a “proceeding” was pending when he engaged in the obstructive conduct.

Background
The individual owned and operated a freight service that transported items to and from the United States and Canada. The government charged the individual with violating the “omnibus clause” of Code Sec. 7212(a), which imposes criminal liability on anyone who “in any other way corruptly … obstructs or impedes, or endeavors to obstruct or impede, the due administration of” the Internal Revenue Code (Title 26).

The government alleged that the individual obstructed tax administration because he: (1) failed to maintain corporate books and records; (2) failed to provide his accountant with complete and accurate tax information; (3) destroyed business records; (4) was hiding income; and (5) was paying employees with cash. At trial, the jury was instructed that it must unanimously find that he corruptly engaged in one of the practices listed. However, the jury was not instructed that it had to find that the individual knew he was under investigation and intended to interfere with that investigation. Subsequently, the jury convicted the individual on all counts. Then, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction.

Tax Law Administration
The Supreme Court reversed and remanded. According to the Court, the verbs “obstruct” and “impede” require an object. Therefore, the taxpayer must hinder a particular person or thing. Moreover, the omnibus clause serves as a “catchall” for the obstructive conduct, not as a catchall for every violation that interferes with tax law administration.

Nothing in the statute’s history suggested that Congress intended the omnibus clause to apply to the entire Internal Revenue Code, including the routine processing of tax returns, tax payments and tax refunds. Further, if the omnibus clause applied to all tax law administration, many tax misdemeanors might turn into felonies and make specific criminal provisions in the Code redundant. Accordingly, the phrase “due administration of” the tax code referred only to some acts, not everything the IRS does.

Overly Broad Interpretation
A broad interpretation of the omnibus clause would also risk the lack of fair warning. Interpreted broadly, the provision could apply to a person who paid a babysitter in cash without withholding taxes, left a large cash tip in a restaurant, failed to keep donation receipts, or failed to provide every record to their accountant. Such individuals may know they are violating an IRS rule. However, they would not think they could be prosecuted for obstruction. Further, if Congress intended that outcome, it should have made that clear in the statute.

Government’s Argument
Further, the Court rejected the government’s argument that the need to show the obstructive conduct was corrupt cured any overbreath problem. However, a taxpayer who “willfully” violates the tax code intends someone to obtain an unlawful advantage. Moreover, relying upon prosecutorial discretion to narrow an otherwise overbroad statute puts too much power in the hands of the prosecutor, and risks undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system. Therefore, to secure a conviction under the omnibus clause, the government was required to show that there was a nexus between the individual’s conduct and an investigation, audit or other targeted administrative action.

Reversing and remanding a CA-2 decision 2016-2 ustc ¶50,453.