Yates v. United States: Something Fishy at the Supreme Court

Update 2/25/15:  In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court today ruled in favor of Yates, finding that fish are not “tangible objects” under 18 U.S.C. 1519.  I’ll have an analysis of the opinion in next week’s post.

Today the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a federal criminal case, Yates v. United States, that raises one of those questions only a law professor could love: is a fish a “tangible object?”

The defendant John Yates is a commercial fisherman. In August 2007 he was working as the captain of the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing vessel catching red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. While the boat was in federal waters, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer boarded her to conduct a routine inspection on behalf of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Federal law at the time required harvested red grouper to be at least 20 inches long. The officer noticed several grouper that appeared to be undersized, and proceeded to measure a number of the fish aboard the Miss Katie. He ultimately determined there were 72 undersized grouper on board and issued Yates a civil citation for violating the fishing regulations.

The officer placed the undersized fish in a crate in the ship’s storage area and told Yates to leave the fish there until he returned to port, where the fish would be seized and destroyed. Once the officer left, however, Yates instructed a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with larger ones. When the Miss Katie returned to port, officials inspected the fish again and smelled a rat. A crew member ultimately confessed to making the swap and throwing the illegal fish overboard at Yates’ direction, and said that Yates instructed the crew to lie to federal officials about disposing of the fish.

Yates was charged with three crimes: destroying evidence to prevent its seizure (18 U.S.C. 2232), false statements to a federal official (18 U.S.C. 1001) and obstruction of justice (18 U.S.C. 1519).  At trial the jury acquitted him on the false statements count and convicted him of the other two charges.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Only the obstruction of justice conviction is now on appeal in the Supreme Court.

The obstruction of justice statute Yates was charged with violating, 18 U.S.C. 1519, provides:

Whoever 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 the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

18 U.S.C. 1519 (2002) (emphasis added).  Yates argued at trial and in the Court of Appeals that this statute does not apply to his conduct because the fish that he destroyed were not “tangible objects” within the meaning of this law.  The lower courts ruled against him and upheld his conviction, and the Supreme Court will now hear the case.

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At first glance, this might appear to be a pretty straightforward case.  “Tangible object” is a broad term and seems to refer to any object that has substance or a physical form, which would certainly include a fish. This was essentially the approach taken by the 11th Circuit in its rather cursory analysis: a fish fits the dictionary definition of a tangible object, case closed. Upon closer examination, however, Yates actually has some fairly compelling arguments in his favor.

The statute in question, 18 U.S.C. 1519, is relatively new.  It is part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that Congress passed in 2002 in response to the huge corporate financial scandals that had recently taken place, such as Enron and Worldcom. A primary motivation for those laws was the Arthur Anderson case, where the accounting giant shredded millions of pages of Enron documents in anticipation of an upcoming SEC investigation.  In the aftermath of that case there was concern that existing obstruction of justice statutes did not adequately cover a situation where a defendant personally destroyed evidence in anticipation of a possible federal proceeding that had not yet begun.  Accordingly, as part of Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress closed this loophole by amending a number of the obstruction of justice statutes and adding some new ones, including Section 1519.

Yates argues that “tangible object” has to be read in the context of this history and the other language of Section 1519. There are canons of statutory construction with obscure Latin names that say when the meaning of a general term in a statute is unclear, you look to the company it keeps: the other terms in the statute.  For example, if a statute referred to “rods, reels, nets, tackle, and other equipment” and you wanted to know what Congress meant by “other equipment,” you would conclude, considering the terms preceding it, that Congress intended to refer to equipment related to fishing.  You probably wouldn’t read that statute to apply to something like a bulldozer or an office copier, even though those are certainly “equipment” in other contexts.

Relying on the legislative history, Yates argues that Congress had the Arthur Anderson shredding in mind when it passed Section 1519 and that it is primarily an “anti-shredding” provision. He claims the statute is concerned only with record-keeping, as evidenced by the terms “document” and “record,” and not with the broader potential universe of all obstruction of justice. In context, therefore, “tangible object” refers only to objects that can be used to store data or information, such as computer hard drives or thumb drives. Those are the types of “tangible objects” that fit into the same general category as “documents” and “records” — objects that hold information.

Yates also relies upon Section 1519’s use of terms such as “falsify” or “make a false entry in” and argues that these terms further demonstrate the statute is concerned only with objects that can store information.  It makes sense to say one could make a false entry on a computer hard drive, but one cannot falsify or make a false entry in a fish.

The Government’s primary response is that the statute says what it says.  “Tangible object” may be broad, but it is not ambiguous, and the canons of statutory construction that Yates relies upon only come into play where there is ambiguity. Any type of physical object may potentially provide information that is relevant to a federal investigation.  Therefore Congress intended to outlaw the destruction of any type of evidence, if done with the intent to obstruct a government matter. If Congress truly intended the statute to be as limited as Yates suggests, it would have been a simple matter to write “document, record, or other information storage device” — but instead Congress chose the broader term, “tangible object.”

If Yates is correct, the government argues, then 1519 would criminalize a murder defendant destroying his victim’s diary but not destroying the murder weapon. Congress could not have intended such an irrational result. To pick a hypothetical even closer to the actual facts, suppose the officer had taken photos of the fish and told Yates to keep the photos and bring them back to port.  If Yates is correct, Section 1519 would criminalize Yates destroying the photos of the fish but not the fish themselves, which are the best evidence of the violation. Why would Congress pass such a law?

One response to this argument is that destruction of a murder weapon likely could be charged under other obstruction of justice statutes, just not under Section 1519. Indeed, one thing this case highlights is just what a mess the federal obstruction of justice laws are. A number of different obstruction prohibitions have been added piecemeal to the criminal code over the decades, and they overlap and duplicate each other in many instances. It may well be that Yates could have been charged under one of the other obstruction statutes, such as 18 U.S.C. 1512(c), and the prosecutor simply chose the wrong one to use.

A number of organizations and individuals, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Cato Institute, and former U.S. Representative Oxley, who co-authored the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, have submitted briefs in support of Yates. They agree that the statute was aimed only at business record-keeping and not at obstruction of justice in the larger sense. They argue that the government’s position — that Section 1519 applies to any kind of tangible object at all — would represent a dramatic and unwarranted expansion of obstruction of justice laws in cases in which an official government proceeding is not underway or even necessarily contemplated.

At first I thought this looked like an easy win for the Government, but now I’m not so sure. This Court does have a track record of refusing to narrow white-collar statutes by creating limitations that do not appear in the text. The argument usually is that the statute says what it says, and if Congress did not intend that, Congress can fix it. If the Court takes that approach, then Yates will lose.

But the mere fact the Court took the case is good news for Yates; it means at least four of the Justices were troubled enough by his conviction that they wanted to take a look. Perhaps the Court will use this case to reel in Section 1519 and bring a little badly-needed clarity to the law of obstruction of justice.

2 thoughts on “Yates v. United States: Something Fishy at the Supreme Court

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