Oral argument was held in the U.S. Supreme Court on November 5, 2014, in Yates v. U.S., No. 13-7451, the case involving the appeal of a criminal conviction of a commercial fisherman for destruction of evidence, in this case undersized fish.
This case, previously reported in this blog, is an appeal from the decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals which upheld the conviction of the Florida fisherman, John Yates, under the Sabanes-Oxley “anti-shredding” provision, 18 U.S.C. §1519. The provision makes it a crime to destroy, mutilate, conceal or cover up any record, document, or tangible object with intent to impede, obstruct, or influence an investigation within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States.
Yates allegedly had 72 red grouper fish which were under the legal size limit when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boarded his vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. When he reached shore, the Commission only found 69 undersized fish.
Argument in the case centered on the Congressional intent regarding items covered by §1519 and whether Congress intended to include tangible objects. Yates’ counsel argued that per the title of the Sarbanes-Oxley provision, the covered conduct was “for Altering Documents.” However, the Justices pointed out that §1512(c) of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act specifically mentions tangible objects. Yates also argued that the case involved an overly broad statute which could apply to impose a criminal felony conviction in any federal matter. The possible penalty for destruction of evidence under §1519 is 20 years.
The government argued that the express language of §1519 covered “any record, document, or tangible object,” and therefore it unambiguously encompassed physical evidence like fish. The Court raised the question as to why the U.S. prosecutors would charge a defendant like Yates under a statute which could impose a 20 year felony conviction, when there were a number of other federal and state statutes which would apply. The Court focused on whether the statutory provision used was vague and potentially could lead to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.
For a preliminary transcript of the oral argument, go to www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/13-7451_4gd5.pdf. For more information, contact Toni Ellington at (504) 599-8500.