Whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, where the term “tangible object” is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying “tangible object” in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose?
Lower court opinion: United States v. Yates, 733 F.3d 1059 (11th Cir. 2013)
As explained by the Question Presented, in the wake of the criminal charges filed against the officers of Enron Corporation, among others, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. The “anti-shredding provision” of the Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, imposes criminal penalties on anyone who “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 or obstruct an investigation. Yates, a commercial fisherman, not a corporate executive, was charged and convicted under the statute for destroying purportedly undersized fish he harvested after a federally-deputized officer had issued him a civil citation and instructed him to bring the fish back to port.
There is no circuit split on the question of whether § 1519 extends to anything meeting the dictionary definition of “tangible objects,” or instead is limited to the destruction of tangible objects related to record-keeping. But the potentially broad application of the law to many kinds of activities is clear, and that obviously was sufficient bait for the Court to take the hook. (As was famously said about an older enactment of “terse comprehensiveness” governing “fast-fish” and “loose-fish” in a certain fishery, “what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.”) Because the decision could greatly expand the reach of § 1519, it will be of interest to anyone whose line of work includes defending federal criminal cases.
For additional commentary, see these posts at the Volokh Conspiracy.