Yates v. United States

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Yates v. United States.


Does the term “tangible objects” in 18 U.S.C. § 1519 encompass all physical objects, including fish, or only those objects that are meant to preserve information?

Oral argument: 
November 5, 2014

In this case the Supreme Court will address whether the term “tangible objects” in 18 U.S.C. § 1519 encompasses more than objects that preserve information—specifically whether it includes fish. Section 1519 criminalizes destroying or concealing a “tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a government investigation. While Yates encourages the Court to look at the statutory language surrounding “tangible objects” and argues that fish are not “tangible objects” within the meaning of the statute, the government contends that “tangible objects” is an unambiguous term that applies to all objects, including fish. The Court’s ruling will implicate the reach of federal law, statutory interpretation, and the notice requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

In the wake of the criminal charges filed against Enron's corporate officers, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Known as the “anti-shredding provision” of the Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1519 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. 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (emphasis supplied). John L. Yates, a commercial fisherman, was charged and convicted under this anti-shredding criminal statute for destroying purportedly undersized, harvested fish from the Gulf of Mexico after a federally-deputized officer had issued him a civil citation and instructed him to bring them back to port.

This petition presents the important question of whether the reach of section 1519 extends to the construction of anything meeting the dictionary definition of “tangible objects,” or instead is limited to the destruction of tangible objects related to record-keeping as follows:

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?


On August 23, 2007, Petitioner John Yates and his crew were actively engaged in fishing aboard their vessel when Officer John Jones (“Officer Jones”) of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approached for an inspection. During the inspection, Officer Jones noticed that three red groupers caught by Yates and his crew looked smaller than the legally minimum size of twenty inches. After measuring other fish in the catch, Officer Jones placed seventy-two red groupers that he thought were illegally undersized in a wooden box, issued a citation to Yates, and instructed Yates not to do anything to the undersized red grouper as they would be seized by the National Marine Fisheries Service (“Fisheries Service”) upon the vessel’s return to port.

After Officer Jones’ departure, Yates ordered his crew to throw the undersized fish overboard and place other fish in the wooden crate. Yates also instructed a member of his crew to say that the fish in the wooden crate were the same undersized fish that Officer Jones had placed there.

On August 27, 2007, the Fisheries Service called on Officer Jones to re-measure the fish. This time, sixty-nine fish were below the twenty-inch limit. Officer Jones also noticed another discrepancy: while the fish that he had measured four days prior were eighteen to nineteen inches long, none of the fish measured at the dock were that small and most now measured close to twenty inches. Because of Officer Jones’ suspicions that the fish had been replaced, federal agents interviewed a member of Yates’ crew who informed them of the switch.

At trial in the District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Yates argued that the fish were measured incorrectly because their mouths were not open at the time of measurement. If measured with their mouth open, he contended, they would have met the minimum size requirement. Nonetheless, Yates was found guilty of “destroying or concealing a ‘tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence’ the government’s investigation into harvesting undersized grouper, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519 [(“§ 1519”)].” Section 1519 was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal where documents and objects containing information were destroyed in anticipation of an investigation.

On his subsequent appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, Yates argued that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that the fish thrown overboard were undersized, and that the term “tangible object” in § 1519 only applies to things that relate to recordkeeping, and not to fish. However, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. Yates then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which granted certiorari on the question of whether the term “tangible objects” applies to fish.


The Court must determine how far the term “tangible objects” in 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (“§ 1519”) reaches. Yates maintains that the Court should not read the term “tangible objects” so broadly as to capture tangible objects like fish. Yates suggests that the term “tangible objects” actually encompasses only objects capable of storing information. The government, however, contends that the term “tangible objects” reaches all tangible objects, including fish.


Yates argues that the Court has to look beyond the term “tangible object” to understand its meaning because the term is “chameleon-like” and must be understood in its context. Yates submits that a simple analogy proves his point: a person reading the phrase “General Motors sells tangible objects” would understand “tangible objects” refers to automobiles, but a person reading the phrase “Apple sells tangible objects” would define “tangible objects” as electronic products and exclude from that definition other tangible objects, like automobiles. Yates claims that, just as in its analogy, the interpreter (in this case the Court) cannot determine the meaning of the term “tangible objects” without examining both the surrounding language and the broader context of § 1519.

The government, however, contends that the term “tangible object” is unambiguous and covers all physical evidence. The government asserts that, based on the dictionary definition of the words “tangible” and “object,” the term “tangible object” means “discrete physical items perceptible by the senses.” Furthermore, the fact that “any” precedes “tangible objects” prohibits, according to the government, a reading of a limitation on the meaning of “tangible objects.” Moreover, the government argues, Yates’ analogy is faulty because it is based on objects a company is known for rather than any definition of tangible objects. Thus, the government points out, a person could correctly respond to the question “Does Apple sell tangible objects?” by responding “Yes it sells gift cards, headphones and backpacks,” which encompasses objects not inherently associated with Apple.


Regarding the language surrounding the term, Yates argues that the Court should implement the interpretive tools noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis to determine the meaning of the term “tangible objects.” Applying these interpretive tools, Yates claims that the term “tangible object” refers only to “a thing that is used to preserve information, such as a computer, server, or similar storage device.” Yates contends that this conclusion is necessitated by the preceding words “record” and “document,” which Yates believes are specific terms that describe information preservation mediums. Additionally, Yates argues that the transitive verb-chain preceding “tangible object,” which includes “makes a false entry in,” cannot support the government’s interpretation of “tangible objects.” Yates points out that false entries cannot occur in every tangible object (e.g. fish), but false entries can occur in objects that preserve information. Yates contends that the Court should not divorce “tangible object” from “makes a false entry in” and that the Court would not have to if the court defines “tangible object” as he suggests.

The government, however, maintains that the immediate language surrounding the term “tangible objects” does not permit Yates’ limited reading. First, the government contends that the meaning of the term “tangible objects” derives from the dictionary negates the applicability of the interpretive tools. Second, the government asserts that the Court should not interpret “tangible object” to encompass only objects similar to “records” and “documents,” because the term “tangible objects” would become wholly superfluous as a mere definitional reiteration of “records” and “documents.” Moreover, the government contends that if the Court does utilize the interpretive tools, the Court should base this application on the unifying principle between the terms “records,” “documents,” and “tangible objects.” The government argues that “records” and “documents” refer to objects that, when destroyed, impair an official investigation or proceeding, and, accordingly, the Court should interpret “tangible objects” broadly enough to encompass objects that do not preserve information but that can still impair a judicial proceeding if destroyed. The government also asserts that Yates’ application of the transitive verb-chain to “tangible objects” is misplaced because it relies on the faulty premise that the verbs must perfectly match their nouns. Rather, the government claims that the statute requires only that “any record, document, or tangible object” can operate as the subject to any of the verbs, but each verb does not have to match with each noun.


Both parties acknowledge that the impetus for the Congressional action that resulted in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which included 18 U.S.C. § 1519, was the collapse—and fraudulent behavior—of Enron and the firm that audited Enron, Arthur Andersen LLP. The two parties, however, disagree over the effect of those events on the definition of the term “tangible objects.”

Yates argues that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act’s purpose was to protect investors and to punish corporate fraud. In support of this proposition, Yates illuminates the titles of both 18 U.S.C. § 1519—“Destruction, alteration, or falsification or records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy”—and another statute enacted in the wake of Enron’s collapse, 18 U.S.C. § 1520—“Destruction of corporate audit records.” This contextual support, Yates claims, lends credence to his limited interpretation of the meaning of “tangible objects.” Additionally, Yates contends that Congress approved the Sentencing Commission’s construction of the language “tangible objects” as a medium to preserve information in the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Sentencing Guidelines”). According to Yates, if Congress had thought the Sentencing Commission misconstrued the meaning of “tangible objects,” Congress could have voiced its opposition; and the fact that it did not shows that this construction effectuated Congress’ intended meaning. Finally, Yates asserts that any reliance on the Model Penal Code and the Brown Commission Report, to determine the meaning of the term, is unfounded, since neither carries a twenty-year felony charge or has a similar statutory structure to § 1519.

The government argues that, although Enron’s collapse was the impetus for the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, § 1519 is not limited to only conduct that occurred during the Enron collapse. The government counters Yates’ title assertion, arguing that the meaning of “tangible objects” is not bound by the section titles, as they are merely shorthand references and not completely inclusive. The government also asserts that Congress did not endow the Sentencing Commission with interpretive power, and therefore, the Sentencing Commission’s understanding is not definitive. Additionally, the government maintains, the definition in the Sentencing Guidelines contains the word “includes,” which suggests that the definition there is not exhaustive or limited to objects that preserve information. Finally, the government claims that the Model Penal Code and the Brown Commission Proposal supports its definition of the term “tangible objects.” The government contends that Congress consciously chose language that was “materially indistinguishable” from the language in those sources—which, according to the government, had a broad definition identical to the government’s interpretation.


Yates argues that the Court should restrict the definition of the term “tangible objects” to circumscribe absurd results, conform to the doctrine of lenity, and avoid an unconstitutionally vague interpretation. Yates contends that if the Court does not limit the definition, then the government can prosecute a car manufacturer for destroying junked parts, which Yates considers an absurd result. Moreover, Yates maintains that the Court should apply the lenity doctrine and choose the less harsh reading, for the term “tangible objects” is susceptible to multiple interpretations. If the Court adopts the harsher interpretation, then, in Yates’ view, the statute becomes too vague to satisfy due process.

The government counters that criminalizing the destruction of any evidence to thwart an investigation is not absurd but rather the goal of § 1519. The government argues that the Court cannot reach the lenity doctrine nor avoid constitutional vagueness, if any, because those interpretive tools are applicable only if a term is susceptible of multiple meanings, which the government contends is not the case here.


This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to decide whether the term “tangible object” in 18 U.S.C. § 1519 (“§ 1519”) is limited to only things meant to preserve information or if it applies to all physical objects—including fish. Yates argues that the term “tangible objects” should encompass only things meant to preserve information. The United States government (“the government”), on the other hand, contends that the term “tangible objects” is unambiguous and should apply to all physical evidence. The Supreme Court’s decision implicates debates over the reach of federal laws and statutory interpretation, as well as constitutional issues.


Yates and supporting amici contend that if “tangible objects” is read broadly, it would result in the overcriminalization of certain acts. Cause of Action, the Southeastern Legal Foundation, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation express concern that if § 1519 is read broadly, the disposal of almost any object could fall within its language. In their view, § 1519 would turn minor offenses, such as disposing a baseball bat used to destroy mailboxes, into a felony with a possible sentence of twenty years. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers echo this concern and also assert that reading § 1519 broadly would allow the government to obtain convictions on individuals who would likely not be convicted under the underlying statute that triggered the investigation. Finally, the National Federation of Independent Business Small Business Legal Center contends that § 1519 would seriously burden small business owners since the disposal of items could lead to criminal prosecutions. This, they assert, would force small businesses to incur heavy costs in storing their items in order to err on the side of caution when they become aware of a potential regulatory violation.

In contrast, the government maintains that reading “tangible objects” to mean all physical objects would not overcriminalize certain behavior because § 1519 requires the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation. Thus, the government believes, § 1519 would only apply to true criminal behavior. Furthermore, the government argues that a broad reading is necessary in order to ensure that physical evidence relevant to an investigation will not be destroyed and furthermore, it is appropriate for Congress to penalize the destruction of any physical evidence if it thwarts an investigation. Also, the government emphasizes that concerns over long prison terms for relatively minor offenses are unfounded since sentencing courts have broad discretion when determining the proper sentence for a § 1519 violation. Consequently, the government argues, while § 1519 carries a substantial maximum penalty, the actual sentence will reflect the context in which the § 1519 violation occurred.


Amici in support of Yates argue that a broad reading of the term “tangible objects” turns clear statutory language into unconstitutionally vague language. The Washington Legal Foundation fears that a broad interpretation of the language would make § 1519 insufficiently clear as to which objects fall within the scope of its language. According to Cause of Action and other amici, because the language would be vague, it will deprive individuals of fair notice that their conduct violates § 1519 and therefore, individuals could commit a criminal act without being aware of it. In particular, these amici believe that due to the lack of notice, the language would violate the due process clause. The Cato Institute suggests that consequently, only a clear and narrow construction of the statute can avoid this constitutional problem.

The government counters that there is no notice concern because it is reasonably clear to an individual that any physical evidence is encompassed by the language. Moreover, the government points to the other requirements of § 1519, namely that the destruction or concealment of “tangible objects” be done with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation, as mitigating any potential vagueness in the language. The government believes that this added requirement prevents inadvertent or innocent conduct from being criminalized.


In this case, the Supreme Court will determine the scope of the term “tangible objects,” which will in turn determine the scope of § 1519. In order to reach this conclusion, the Court must determine whether the term “tangible objects” derives its meaning from linguistic and statutory context. If the term does depend on context, then the Court will examine the immediate statutory context as well as the more general statutory scheme that encompasses § 1519. The Court’s resolution of this case will likely impact criminalization under § 1519, statutory interpretation, and notice required by the due process clause.

Edited by