I’m serious. If there is anything on your computer that the FBI might be interested in viewing leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Please, for your own sake. Whatever it is let it be. It might be something that when the FBI learns about it might get you involved in facing a criminal punishment of up to five, or maybe even ten years in prison. But if you erase it, you will be facing twenty.
It is difficult for legislators to draft laws to fit the situation one wants to address and hope they will not be used in other circumstances. The legislators try to do this but along with the language of the law they leave a history of their deliberations so that when judges interpret the law they will make it conform to the original intent. Sadly, the judges never do.
For instance the Racketeering statute (RICO)was meant to combat the menace of the Mafia or other gangsters who combined together to commit criminal acts. That law helped bring the Mafia to its knees. When it was extended to three people who worked in a probation office it made us all potential targets. It was twisted all out of recognition from aiming at people who murder other people to people who practice the horrors of patronage.
Here’s another one of those laws whose original intent made us feel all right but seeing it applied makes us less than happy. If I asked you if you ever heard of the Sarbanes-Oxley law and you did you would know it came about as a result of the Exxon scandal. If you went to Wikipedia you would read: “The bill, . . . was enacted as a reaction to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals, including Enron, and Worldcom. The sections of the bill cover responsibilities of a public corporation’s board of directors, adds criminal penalties for certain misconduct, and required the Securities and Exchange Commission to create regulations to define how public corporations are to comply with the law.”
A part of that law is 18 U.S.C.s. 1519 that prohibits deletion of material from one’s computer. You violate the law if (1) you “knowingly deleted or altered the information on [your] computer (2) with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence an investigation that (3) [you] contemplated at the time of the deletion or alteration. It is not limited to corporations but we are all covered by it. It provides a penalty of up to 20 years in prison the same as the RICO law.
Do you remember the 24 year old Quincy taxi cab driver Khairullozhon Matanov who went to work regularly, seemed well liked at his job, had no weapons nor did he present a threat to anyone. He had his apartment raided around 5:00 a.m. by a battalion of FBI agents who had marshaled for one of its much loved early morning raids. A simple phone call to the Quincy police by the FBI that morning would have resulted in him being easily been taken into custody leaving for work or at work. But covetous of the publicity and the need to show it is doing something the FBI dressed in Darth Vader-like gear scared the beejeezus out of the neighborhood.
Matanov was a friend of the Tsarnaev brothers. He knew nothing about their planned terrorist act nor was implicated in it in any manner despite a year’s effort in trying to connect him to it. Right after the terrorist act, Matanov went to the police to tell of his relationship but to put distance between himself and them he lied about some things. He was charged with lying to FBI agents. He also had stuff on his computer he thought might get him in a jam so he erased it. He was charged under s. 1519 with doing that. He pleaded guilty but said: “The whole case is mystery. The FBI is trying to destroy my life.”
He pleaded guilty to avoid facing 20 years for the deletion and five years for lying. The sentence the prosecutors will recommend is 30 months. He is before Judge Young who said: “Matanov was responsible for “substantial interference” to the investigation. But added, “I didn’t hear much about the interference throwing the investigators off their tracks.” It’s hard to see how something is substantial when it amounts to nothing but then again we don’t have the wisdom of federal judges.
The cases interpreting s. 1519 have given it a wide swath. We have seen what our local federal prosecutors can do. This is just a word to the wise. If you have something on your computer that could influence an investigation of you then you are already out of luck; even so, don’t get yourself in a deeper hole by erasing it.