Yates v. United States
Background: While fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, the Miss Katie was boarded by a fisheries officer, who measured several red grouper fish and found them to be less than 20 inches (the minimum size limit for red grouper at the time). The officer placed the undersized fish in the Miss Katie's fish box, issued the captain (Yates) a citation, and instructed Yates not to disturb the fish because they would be seized upon return to port. Nonetheless, Yates had his crew throw the undersized fish overboard and replaced them with other undersized (but closer to 20") fish. Yates was charged and convicted of 1) the destruction of property to prevent seizure; and 2) the destruction of a "tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence" the government's investigation into harvesting undersized grouper. This second charge was based upon the "anti-shredding" provision of Sarbanes-Oxley, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction.
Issue: The question before the Court is whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which makes it a crime for 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, 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.
Holding: The Supreme Court ruled that a “tangible object” within §1519’s compass is one used to record or preserve information. Because the grouper caught by Yates were not “tangible objects” under this meaning, his conviction would be reversed.