RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Roughly 100 miles west of Tampa, FL
DOCKET NO.: 13-7451
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 574 US (2015)
GRANTED: Apr 28, 2014
ARGUED: Nov 05, 2014
DECIDED: Feb 25, 2015
Roman Martinez - on behalf of the respondent
John L. Badalamenti - on behalf of the petitioner
Facts of the case
On August 17, 2007, John L. Yates and his crew prepared his fishing vessel for a commercial fishing trip into federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. On August 23, 2007, Officer John Jones, a field officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who was empowered to enforce federal fisheries laws, boarded the vessel and noticed red grouper fish that appeared to be smaller than the requisite 20 inches. Officer Jones measured the grouper that appeared smaller and found a total of 72 fish that measured under 20 inches. Officer Jones placed these fish in wooden crates, issued Yates a citation, and informed Yates that the National Marine Fisheries Service would seize these fish upon the vessel's return to port. Contrary to Officer Jones' directions, Yates instructed his crew to throw the fish in question overboard and replace them with larger fish. When the vessel returned to port and the fish were measured on August 27, Officer Jones suspected that Yates had disposed of the fish he had measured.
Yates was charged with destruction and falsification of evidence. At trial he argued that the fish thrown overboard were not actually undersized because Officer Jones had measured the fish with their mouths closed, which shortens the length of fish. The district court found Yates guilty of disposing of undersized fish and therefore in violation of a statute that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal "a tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence" a governmental investigation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Are fish considered "tangible objects" for the purpose of the statute that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal tangible objects to impede a governmental investigation, even though the term is undefined and exists in a statute that largely refers to record-keeping documents?
Media for Yates v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 05, 2014 in Yates v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - February 25, 2015 in Yates v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
Justice Ginsburg has our opinion this morning in Case 13-7451, Yates v. United States.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg:
In December of 2007 the federal agent on patrol in the Gulf of Mexico boarded the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat, to check on the vessel's compliance with fishing rules.
At the time federal conservation regulations prohibited catching red grouper less than 20 inches long.
A violation of those regulations is a civil offense, not a criminal infraction, punishable only by fine or fishing license suspension.
The inspecting officer counted 72 undersized red grouper on board the Miss Katie.
He placed those fish in crates to separate them from the rest of the ship's catch and told petitioner Yates, the ship's captain, to leave the fish in the crates until the vessel returned to port.
At port the officer reexamined the fish in the crates.
This time the fish measured slightly longer than they had at sea.
A crew member questioned by the suspicious officer admitted that at Yates' direction he had thrown the fish in the crates overboard and replaced them with other fish from the catch.
For these actions Yates was charged with violating 18 U. S. C. §1519, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The §1519 concerned the fish disposal in which Yates engaged.
One clue to the answer, Congress passed §1519 in 2002 as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
That Act was sparked by the Enron Corporation fiasco, a fraud involving massive shredding of incriminating documents.
§1519 prohibits altering, destroying, mutilating, concealing, covering up, falsifying or making a false entry in any record document or tangible object with intent to obstruct the investigation or a proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any federal department or agency.
Yates had violated this provision the government charged by destroying or concealing tangible objects, namely 72 small fish thrown overboard at Yates' command.
At trial Yates moved for a judgment of acquittal on the §1519 charge.
Emphasizing §1519's origin in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Yates argued that the provision applied only to tangible objects commonly used to record or store information, for example, logbooks or hard drives.
The District Court denied Yates' motion, who was convicted of violating §1519 and sentenced to 30 days in prison, plus three years supervised release.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed Yates' felony conviction.
§1519's reference to tangible objects plainly encompasses a fish, the Court of Appeals ruled, for the dictionary definition of a tangible object is an object possessing physical form.
We reverse the Eleventh Circuit's judgment.
A fish no doubt falls within the dictionary definition of tangible object; it can be seen, caught and handled.
In law, as in life however, the same word sometimes means different things in different context.
Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley Congress trained its attention on deception in financial recordkeeping, we conclude that a tangible object caught by §1519's net is one used to record or preserve information and does not include any and every object found on land or in the sea.
Familiar interpretive guides support our reading.
§1519's title, which refers only to records, gives no hint that the section was intended to prohibit the destruction of all manner of physical evidence.
Furthermore, Congress inserted the new events described in §1519 into the Criminal Code next to specialized sections aimed at corporate fraud and financial audits.
As part of Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress also enacted §1512(c)(1), another new obstruction of justice offense.
§1512(c)(1) was drafted and proposed after Congress framed §1519.
§1512(c)(1) prohibits the destruction or concealment of any record document or other object with intent to obstruct an official proceeding.