What A Fishy Case Tells Us About How The Supreme Court Views Criminal Law

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Supreme Court’s recent decision on the scope of a criminal anti-shredding law in Yates v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1074 (2014), caught headlines in legal and mainstream publications for its unusual fact pattern. In short, a fisherman was accused of destroying fish that he had caught and stored that fell below the minimum length allowed. The odd twist in this story is that he was convicted under a law that was enacted in the face of widespread financial misconduct and often only applies to the destruction of information recording instances of corporate crime. The Justices ultimately gave the financial fraud law a narrow reading, but only in a split decision where no opinion garnered more than four votes.

If you look beyond the headlines and the immediate ruling, the Court’s forty-three page decision, split across plurality, concurring, and dissenting opinions, provides important guideposts about where the Justices see the current state of criminal law.

The Facts: Fishes And SOX

The dispute in Yates originated in 2007 when Officer John Jones of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boarded a commercial fishing boat captained by John Yates operating in the Gulf of Mexico.  Officer Jones noticed that some caught Red Grouper aboard the vessel appeared shorter than the twenty-inch minimum length permitted by federal regulations. As every lawyer knows, in 2007, commercial fishing vessels such as Mr. Yates’ were required to release “immediately with a minimum of harm” all Red Grouper shorter than the twenty-inch minimum proscribed in 50 C.F.R. § 622.37(d)(2)(ii) (2007).  Officer Jones identified seventy-two fish that fell below the length proscribed in the Code of Federal Regulations but, notably, all seventy-two were within two inches of the minimum length. The officer issued a citation for the offense and instructed Yates and his crew members to leave the offending fish segregated until their ship returned to port.

When the ship returned to port several days later, several of the cold fish had mysteriously grown in length, leading Officer Jones to question the crew members about why the clearly deceased fish had grown. One of them eventually spilled the beans: Yates had instructed his crew to toss the fish that were initially measured by Officer Jones and replace them with new, longer fish.

Almost three years later, Yates was indicted and eventually convicted for violating 18 U.S.C. § 2232(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 1519. The parties agreed that the former statute – a nearly seventy-year-old provision that bars the knowing destruction of property to prevent seizure by government – applied to Yates. Section 1519 was more controversial and its application to Yates became the basis for the case that reached the Supreme Court.

Section 1519 of Title 18 the U.S. Code was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, 116 Stat. 745, in light of revelations that Enron’s auditors, Arthur Andersen, had regularly destroyed incriminating evidence that could have implicate both its client and the audit company itself. Section 1519 proscribes that:

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.

In short, the statute makes it a felony to modify or altogether destroy “any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to obstruct an investigation or the administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of a federal agency.

Yates was eventually convicted of violating both § 2232(a) and § 1519 and sentenced to thirty days in prison followed by three year of supervised release.

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