Yates v. United States

Decision Date25 February 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–7451.,13–7451.
Parties John L. YATES, Petitioner v. UNITED STATES.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

John L. Badalamenti, Tampa, FL, for Petitioner.

Roman Martinez, Levittown, PR, for Respondent.

Donna Lee Elm, Federal Defender, John L. Badalamenti, Counsel of Record, Rosemary Cakmis, Adeel M. Bashir, Office of the Federal Defender, Tampa, FL, for Petitioner.

Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., Solicitor General, Counsel of Record, Leslie R. Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General, Michael R. Dreeben, Deputy Solicitor General, Roman Martinez, Assistant to the Solicitor General, John F. De Pue, Attorney, Department of Justice, Washington, DC, for the United States.

Justice GINSBURG announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, Justice BREYER, and Justice SOTOMAYOR join.

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, 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."

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 is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled, and a catch, as this case illustrates, is vulnerable to destruction. But it would cut § 1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses any and all objects, whatever their size or significance, destroyed with obstructive intent. Mindful that in Sarbanes–Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and coverups, we conclude that a matching construction of § 1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by § 1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.


On August 23, 2007, the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat, was six days into an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico. Her crew numbered three, including Yates, the captain. Engaged in a routine offshore patrol to inspect both recreational and commercial vessels, Officer John Jones of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission decided to board the Miss Katie to check on the vessel's compliance with fishing rules. Although the Miss Katie was far enough from the Florida coast to be in exclusively federal waters, she was nevertheless within Officer Jones's jurisdiction. Because he had been deputized as a federal agent by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Officer Jones had authority to enforce federal, as well as state, fishing laws.

Upon boarding the Miss Katie, Officer Jones noticed three red grouper that appeared to be undersized hanging from a hook on the deck. At the time, federal conservation regulations required immediate release of red grouper less than 20 inches long. 50 C.F.R. § 622.37(d)(2)(ii) (effective April 2, 2007). Violation of those regulations is a civil offense punishable by a fine or fishing license suspension. See 16 U.S.C. §§ 1857(1)(A), (G), 1858(a), (g).

Suspecting that other undersized fish might be on board, Officer Jones proceeded to inspect the ship's catch, setting aside and measuring only fish that appeared to him to be shorter than 20 inches. Officer Jones ultimately determined that 72 fish fell short of the 20–inch mark. A fellow officer recorded the length of each of the undersized fish on a catch measurement verification form. With few exceptions, the measured fish were between 19 and 20 inches; three were less than 19 inches; none were less than 18.75 inches. After separating the fish measuring below 20 inches from the rest of the catch by placing them in wooden crates, Officer Jones directed Yates to leave the fish, thus segregated, in the crates until the Miss Katie returned to port. Before departing, Officer Jones issued Yates a citation for possession of undersized fish.

Four days later, after the Miss Katie had docked in Cortez, Florida, Officer Jones measured the fish contained in the wooden crates. This time, however, the measured fish, although still less than 20 inches, slightly exceeded the lengths recorded on board. Jones surmised that the fish brought to port were not the same as those he had detected during his initial inspection. Under questioning, one of the crew members admitted that, at Yates's direction, he had thrown overboard the fish Officer Jones had measured at sea, and that he and Yates had replaced the tossed grouper with fish from the rest of the catch.

For reasons not disclosed in the record before us, more than 32 months passed before criminal charges were lodged against Yates. On May 5, 2010, he was indicted for destroying property to prevent a federal seizure, in violation of § 2232(a), and for destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation, in violation of § 1519.1 By the time of the indictment, the minimum legal length for Gulf red grouper had been lowered from 20 inches to 18 inches. See 50 C.F.R. § 622.37(d)(2)(iv) (effective May 18, 2009). No measured fish in Yates's catch fell below that limit. The record does not reveal what civil penalty, if any, Yates received for his possession of fish undersized under the 2007 regulation. See 16 U.S.C. § 1858(a).

Yates was tried on the criminal charges in August 2011. At the end of the Government's case in chief, he moved for a judgment of acquittal on the § 1519 charge. Pointing to § 1519's title and its origin as a provision of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act, Yates argued that the section sets forth "a documents offense" and that its reference to "tangible object[s]" subsumes "computer hard drives, logbooks, [and] things of that nature," not fish. App. 91–92. Yates acknowledged that the Criminal Code contains "sections that would have been appropriate for the [G]overnment to pursue" if it wished to prosecute him for tampering with evidence. App. 91. Section 2232(a), set out supra, at 1–2, fit that description. But § 1519, Yates insisted, did not.

The Government countered that a "tangible object" within § 1519's compass is "simply something other than a document or record." App. 93. The trial judge expressed misgivings about reading "tangible object" as broadly as the Government urged: "Isn't there a Latin phrase [about] construction of a statute.... The gist of it is ... you take a look at [a] line of words, and you interpret the words consistently. So if you're talking about documents, and records, tangible objects are tangible objects in the nature of a document or a record, as opposed to a fish." Ibid. The first-instance judge nonetheless followed controlling Eleventh Circuit precedent. While recognizing that § 1519 was passed as part of legislation targeting corporate fraud, the Court of Appeals had instructed that "the broad language of § 1519 is not limited to corporate fraud cases, and Congress is free to pass laws with language covering areas well beyond the particular crisis du jour that initially prompted legislative action.’ " No. 2:10–cr–66–FtM–29SPC (MD Fla., Aug. 8, 2011), App. 116 (quoting United States v. Hunt, 526 F.3d 739, 744 (C.A.11 2008) ). Accordingly, the trial court read "tangible object" as a term "independent" of "record" or "document." App. 116. For violating § 1519 and § 2232(a), the court sentenced Yates to imprisonment for 30 days, followed by supervised release for three years. App. 118–120. For life, he will bear the stigma of having a federal felony conviction.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit found the text of § 1519 "plain." 733 F.3d 1059, 1064 (2013). Because "tangible object" was "undefined" in the statute, the Court of Appeals gave the term its "ordinary or natural meaning," i.e., its dictionary definition, "[h]aving or possessing physical form." Ibid. (quoting Black's Law Dictionary 1592 (9th ed. 2009)).

We granted certiorari, 572 U.S. 1087, 134 S.Ct. 1935, 188 L.Ed.2d 959 (2014), and now reverse the Eleventh Circuit's judgment.


The Sarbanes–Oxley Act, all agree, was prompted by the exposure of Enron's massive accounting fraud and revelations that the company's outside auditor, Arthur Andersen LLP, had systematically destroyed potentially incriminating documents. The Government acknowledges that § 1519 was intended to prohibit, in particular, corporate document-shredding to hide evidence of financial...

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