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Fishy Evidence – Yates v United States

Fishy Evidence – Yates v United States

• By Ashe Lockhart
• February 25, 2015

>> <begin satire> The Supreme Court of the United States (a/k/a SCOTUS) handed down an landmark opinion today interpreting a vexing question of evidentiary law, whether a fish is a “tangible object” within the context of 18 U.S.C. §1519, which was part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a law designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation. “Yates [as the accused] does not contest his conviction for violating U.S.C. §2232(a) [another statute under which he was charged], but he maintains that fish are not trapped within the term “tangible object,” as that term is used in§1519.” “JUSTICE GINSBURG, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE BREYER, and JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, [wisely] concluded that a ‘tangible object’ within §1519’s compass is one used to record or preserve information [but is not a fish].” Therefore, parties are advised that, at least in the context of 18 U.S.C. §1519, they may discard any evidence they hold in the form of fish (although I hesitate to (A) refer to said evidence as “fishy evidence” or (B) comment on whether the SCOTUS decision addresses the issue of fishing for evidence).  </end satire>

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

YATES v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 13–7451. Argued November 5, 2014—Decided February 25, 2015

While conducting an offshore inspection of a commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal agent found that the ship’s catch contained undersized red grouper, in violation of federal conservation regulations. The officer instructed the ship’s captain, petitioner Yates, to keep the undersized fish segregated from the rest of the catch until the ship returned to port. After the officer departed, Yates instead told a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard. For this offense, Yates was charged with destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §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 the §1519 charge. Pointing to §1519’s origin as a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a law designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation, Yates argued that §1519’s reference to “tangible object” subsumes objects used to store information, such as computer hard drives, not fish. The District Court denied Yates’s motion, and a jury found him guilty of violating §1519. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction, concluding that §1519 applies to the destruction or concealment of fish because, as objects having physical form, fish fall within the dictionary definition of “tangible object.”

Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.

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See also:

Full Opinion of the Court

On SCOTUS Blog

On New York Times

<begin sarcasm> federal agent, a/k/a “bureaucrat [byoo r-uh-krat] noun. 1. an official of a bureaucracy. 2. an official who works by fixed routine without exercising intelligent judgment. ” 25 February 2015, Dictionay.com, <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bureaucrat>; (see also, ‘functionary’). </end sarcasm>

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