__ U.S. __ (2015), 13-7451, Yates v. United States

Docket Nº:13-7451
Citation:__ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 1074, 191 L.Ed.2d 64, 83 U.S.L.W. 4120, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 93
Opinion Judge:GINSBURG, JUSTICE.
Party Name:JOHN L. YATES, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES
Attorney:John L. Badalamenti argued the cause for petitioner. Roman Martinez argued the cause for respondent.
Judge Panel:GINSBURG, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. ALITO, JUST...
Case Date:February 25, 2015
Court:United States Supreme Court
SUMMARY

While inspecting a commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal agent found that the catch contained undersized red grouper, in violation of conservation regulations, and instructed the captain, Yates, to keep the undersized fish segregated from the rest of the catch until the ship returned to port. After the officer departed, Yates told the crew to throw the undersized fish... (see full summary)

 
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Page __

__ U.S. __ (2015)

135 S.Ct. 1074, 191 L.Ed.2d 64, 83 U.S.L.W. 4120, 25 Fla.L.Weekly Fed. S 93

JOHN L. YATES, PETITIONER

v.

UNITED STATES

No. 13-7451

United States Supreme Court

February 25, 2015

Argued November 5, 2014

[135 S.Ct. 1075]ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Reversed and remanded.

SYLLABUS

[135 S.Ct. 1076] [191 L.Ed.2d 70] 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.

733 F.3d 1059, reversed and remanded.

JUSTICE GINSBURG, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE BREYER, and JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR, concluded that a " tangible object" within § 1519's compass is one used to record or preserve information. Pp. 6-20.

(a) Although dictionary definitions of the words " tangible" and " object" bear consideration in determining the meaning [135 S.Ct. 1077] of " tangible object" in § 1519, they are not dispositive. Whether a statutory term is unambiguous " is determined [not only] by reference to the language itself, [but also by] the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole." Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 341, 117 S.Ct. 843, 136 L.Ed.2d 808. Identical language may convey varying content when used in different statutes, sometimes even in different [191 L.Ed.2d 71] provisions of the same statute. See, e.g., FAA v. Cooper, 566 U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 1441, 182 L.Ed.2d 497, 510, ___. Pp. 7-10.

(b) Familiar interpretive guides aid the construction of " tangible object." Though not commanding, § 1519's heading--" Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy" --conveys no suggestion that the section prohibits spoliation of any and all physical evidence, however remote from records.

Section 1519's position within Title 18, Chapter 73, further signals that § 1519 was not intended to serve as a cross-the-board ban on the destruction of physical evidence. Congress placed § 1519 at the end of Chapter 73 following immediately after pre-existing specialized provisions expressly aimed at corporate fraud and financial audits.

The contemporaneous passage of § 1512(c)(1), which prohibits a person from " alter[ing], destroy[ing], mutilat[ing], or conceal[ing] a record, document, or other object . . . with the intent to impair the object's integrity or availability for use in an official proceeding," is also instructive. The Government argues that § 1512(c)(1)'s reference to " other object" includes any and every physical object. But if § 1519's reference to " tangible object" already included all physical objects, as the Government also contends, then Congress had no reason to enact § 1512(c)(1). Section 1519 should not be read to render superfluous an entire provision passed in proximity as part of the same Act. See Marx v. General Revenue Corp., 568 U.S. ___, ___, 133 S.Ct. 1166, 185 L.Ed.2d 242.

The words immediately surrounding " tangible object" in § 1519--" falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record [or] document" --also cabin the contextual meaning of that term. Applying the canons noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis, " tangible object," as the last in a list of terms that begins " any record [or] document," is appropriately read to refer, not to any tangible object, but specifically to the subset of tangible objects used to record or preserve information. This moderate interpretation accords with the list of actions § 1519 proscribes; the verbs " falsif[y]" and " mak[e] a false entry in" typically take as grammatical objects records, documents, or things used to record or preserve information, such as logbooks or hard drives. See Gustafson v. Alloyd Co., 513 U.S. 561, 575, 115 S.Ct. 1061, 131 L.Ed.2d 1.

Use of traditional tools of statutory interpretation to examine markers of congressional intent within the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and § 1519 itself thus call for rejection of an aggressive interpretation of " tangible object."

Furthermore, the meaning of " record, document, or thing" in a provision of the 1962 Model Penal Code (MPC) that has been interpreted to prohibit tampering with any kind of physical evidence is not a reliable indicator of the meaning Congress assigned to " record, document, or tangible object" in § 1519. There are significant differences between the offense described by the MPC provision and the offense created by § 1519. Pp. 10-18.

(c) Finally, if recourse to traditional tools of statutory construction leaves any [135 S.Ct. 1078] doubt about the meaning of " tangible object" in § 1519, it would be [191 L.Ed.2d 72] appropriate to invoke the rule of lenity. Pp. 18-19.

JUSTICE ALITO concluded that traditional rules of statutory construction confirm that Yates has the better argument. Title 18 U.S.C. § 1519's list of nouns, list of verbs, and title, when combined, tip the case in favor of Yates. Applying the canons noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis to the list of nouns--" any record, document, or tangible object" --the term " tangible object" should refer to something similar to records or documents. And while many of § 1519's verbs--" alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in" --could apply to far-flung nouns such as salamanders or sand dunes, the term " makes a false entry in" makes no sense outside of filekeeping. Finally, § 1519's title--" Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy" --also points toward filekeeping rather than fish. Pp. 1-4.

John L. Badalamenti argued the cause for petitioner.

Roman Martinez argued the cause for respondent.

GINSBURG, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and BREYER and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, and THOMAS, JJ., joined.

OPINION

GINSBURG, JUSTICE.

John Yates, a commercial fisherman, caught undersized red grouper in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. To prevent federal authorities from confirming that he had harvested undersized fish, Yates ordered a crew member to toss the suspect catch into the sea. For this offense, he was charged with, and convicted of, violating 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which provides:

" 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."

Yates was also indicted and convicted under § 2232(a), which provides:

" DESTRUCTION OR REMOVAL OF PROPERTY TO PREVENT SEIZURE.--Whoever, before, during, or after any search for or seizure of property by any person authorized to make such search or seizure,

[135 S.Ct. 1079] knowingly destroys, damages, wastes, disposes of, transfers, or otherwise takes any action, or knowingly attempts to destroy, damage, waste, dispose of, transfer, or otherwise take any action, for the purpose of preventing or impairing the Government's lawful authority to take such property into its custody or control or to continue holding such property under its lawful custody and control, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both."

[191 L.Ed.2d 73] Yates does not contest his conviction for violating § 2232(a), but he maintains that fish are not trapped within the term " tangible object," as that term is used in § 1519.

Section 1519 was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, 116 Stat. 745, legislation designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation. A fish is no doubt an object that...

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