The Supreme Court Justices Decide if Fish are “Tangible Objects” in Yates v. United States
The Supreme Court of the United States
Yates v. United States
Docket No. 14–485
Decided on February 25, 2015
Blog By: Stephen N. Preziosi Esq., Criminal Appeals Lawyer
Issue: Was the defendant denied notice that the destruction of fish would fall within the definition of a “tangible object” under 18 U.S.C. § 1519?
Summary: In this case, Defendant Yates was convicted, in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, of “knowingly disposing of undersized fish” to prevent the government from taking lawful custody and control of them. He was also convicted of violating the Sarbanes–Oxley Act for “destroying or concealing a tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence [the] government’s investigation” into the harvesting of undersized grouper. Yate’s motion for judgment of acquittal was denied, he appealed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court reversed Yates’ conviction, and the case was remanded.
Holding: The divided Supreme Court (in a four-one-four ruling) held 1) that the term “tangible object,” within the meaning of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act, only covers objects that one can use to record or preserve information, and 2) that the defendant’s disposal of undersized fish did not involve a “tangible object” for purposes of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act.
Facts: A federal agent conducted an offshore inspection of a Florida commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, where he found that Yates, the ship’s captain, had caught undersized red grouper in violation of federal conservation regulations. The agent told Yates to separate the grouper from the rest of his fish until the ship returned to shore, but Yates instead threw the fish overboard. Yates was subsequently charged with “destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519.” The penalty for someone who, under the statute, “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” a federal investigation is a fine or imprisonment for up to 20 years. Yates made a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the fish did not qualify as a “tangible object” under the statute. However, the district court denied the motion, and he was found guilty of violating § 1519. Yates appealed, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction.
Legal Analysis: The main opinion, written by Justice Ginsburg, held that § 1519 did not apply to fish. She wrote that the term “tangible object” refers to objects that one can use to record or preserve information, and that the defendant’s fish did not involve a “tangible object” for purposes of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act. Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, in which he agreed with the outcome that the Sarbanes Oxley Act (passed to deal with the Enron scandal and the destruction of corporate records) cannot be used against destroying a fisherman throwing fish overboard. He applied the canons noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis to the statute to determine that fish was not like the other words listed in the statute. Justice Kagan, along with three other justices, dissented, suggesting that the term tangible evidence is broad and should refer to any destruction of any physical evidence that would thwart an investigation.