In Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451, the Supreme Court granted cert on the following issue:
"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."The Federal Public Defender's Office for the Middle District represents Yates. It said: "The important question presented to this Court boils down to whether a fish is a 'tangible object' under the 'anti-shredding' criminal provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, entitled 'Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy.' 18 U.S.C. § 1519."
The NACDL amicus brief, written by Bill Shepherd of H&K, begins: "Before this Court is the case of a commercial fisherman and three missing grouper. At the heart of the issue presented is an unconstitutional expansion of federal law, resulting in Petitioner's wrongful conviction. Petitioner's conviction is but one more example of the overcriminalization epidemic."
The 11th Circuit didn't engage on the topic, writing only the following:
B. A fish is a "tangible object" within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 1519.Yates contends the district court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal as to Count II because the term "tangible object" as used in 18 U.S.C. § 1519 "only applies to records, documents, or tangible items that relate to recordkeeping" and "does not apply to . . . fish." [Appellant's Br. at 36.]"In statutory construction, the plain meaning of the statute controls unless the language is ambiguous or leads to absurd results." United States v. Carrell, 252 F.3d 1193, 1198 (11th Cir.2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). "When the text of a statute is plain, . . . we need not concern ourselves with contrary intent or purpose revealed by the legislative history." United States v. Hunt, 526 F.3d 739, 744 (11th Cir.2008). Further, undefined words in a statute — such as "tangible object" in this instance — are given their ordinary or natural meaning. Smith v. United States, 508 U.S. 223, 228, 113 S.Ct. 2050, 2054, 124 L.Ed.2d 138 (1993). In keeping with those principles, we conclude "tangible object," as § 1519 uses that term, unambiguously applies to fish. See BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 1592 (9th ed.2009) (defining "tangible" as "[h]aving or possessing physical form"); see also United States v. Sullivan, 578 F.2d 121, 124 (5th Cir.1978) (noting that cocaine is a "tangible object" subject to examination and inspection under Rule 16(a) of the Rules of Criminal Procedure). Because the statute is unambiguous, we also conclude the rule of lenity does not apply here.
The White Collar Blog, by Ellen Podgor, posted about the case last week:
Perhaps the Supreme Court will agree that in the ocean of crime, this one is a bit fishy. Following the filing of the Petition for Certiorari and a distribution for conference, the Court requested a response from the government. Amici filed a couple of briefs and it was again distributed for conference. It is now set for distribution a third time, April 25, 2014 (see here). It's a wonderful case for the Court to examine principles of statutory interpretation and how far afield the government can go in using a statute written and intended to stop one form of criminal conduct but being used in an unintended manner. This case also provides the Court the chance to step to the plate and express a view on overcriminalization. (see NACDL amicus brief of William Shepherd here - Download NACDLYATESAMICUS). There are many other issues in the "fish case" that may also interest the Court, such as how a civil fishing citation became a criminal case with an indictment issued 985 days after the citation. (see Petitioner's Reply Brief - Download Yates Reply to Brief in Opposition). But the real question is whether the Court will order fish this coming Friday at their conference.