This week, the United States Supreme Court resolved some fishy matters on which prosecutors sought to base a federal felony conviction.
The case, Yates v. United States, arose from a offshore inspection of a commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. During the inspection, a federal agent found that the ship’s catch contained undersized red grouper, in violation of federal conservation regulations. The agent instructed the ship’s captain, Mr. Yates, to keep the undersized fish segregated from the rest of the catch until the ship returned to port. But after the officer left, Yates instead told a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard. Yates was subsequently charged with destroying, concealing and covering up undersized fish, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, section 1519. That section provides that a person may be fined or imprisoned for up to 20 years if he “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.
At trial, Yates moved for a judgment of acquittal on this charge, noting that the provision was part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. That law was designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets after the collapse of Enron Corporation. Yates argued that the reference to “tangible object” was meant to refer to objects that store information, such as computer hard drives, and did not refer to fish. The Court denied the motion and the jury convicted Yates, and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, finding that fish are objects having physical form, and therefore fall within the dictionary definition of a “tangible object.”
In a majority opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg (and joined by the Chief Justice, Justice Breyer and Justice Sotomayor), the Court relied upon “[f]amiliar interpretive guides” in ruling that the “tangible object” to which section 1519 referred was indeed used to record or preserve information. In so ruling, the Court placed significant emphasis on context – in particular, the other parts of Title 18, Chapter 73. The Court noted Congress placed section 1519 at the end of that chapter immediately after pre-existing specialized provisions expressly aimed at corporate fraud and financial audits. The Court also noted the contemporaneous passage of section 1512(c)(1), which prohibits a person from “alter[ing], destroy[ing], mutilat[ing], or conceal[ing] a record, document or other object . . . with the intent to impair the object’s integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding” – a provision that would be unnecessary if section 1519’s reference to “tangible object” already included all physical objects. The Court also applied the statutory interpretation canons of noscitur a scoiis (“it is known from its associates”) and ejusdem generis(“of the same kind”), noting that beginning the provision with “any record [or] document” directs that the “tangible object” later referenced must be one used to record or preserve information. The Court also noted that the rule of lenity required that it resolve the dispute against finding criminal liability here. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion relying on a narrower basis, while Justices Kagan, Scalia, Kennedy and Thomas dissented from the Court’s ruling.
The Court’s opinion in Yates makes for good reading for aficionados of classic statutory interpretation, and the Court’s decision to find that the scope of the statute was narrower than suggested by the government is a welcome respite from the seemingly ever-increasing scope of crimes in the U.S. Code. Congress could certainly pass legislation to make clear if it intended to include other tangible objects in the scope of this provision. But for now, tossing back the little ones does not constitute a SOX crime.