How Destroying Fish Is Not Like Destroying Financial Records

Overcriminalization is a significant problem in the United States, particularly federal overcriminalization. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one is that federal prosecutors consistently stretch laws to encompass conduct that the law was never meant to cover. Normal people who committed minor infractions will often find themselves facing long prison sentences that are entirely disproportionate to the wrongness of the act. Such is the case in an upcoming Supreme Court case, Yates v. United States.  

While commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, John Yates had his catch inspected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission for whether it complied with size restrictions. Finding some undersized fish, officials cited him for a civil violation and he was ordered to bring the undersized fish back to the docks. Instead, he threw them overboard. While he probably knew he would face a fine, what he could not have foreseen was his subsequent criminal prosecution under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act three-years later.

Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted in the wake of the Enron financial scandal and cover-up. It includes a document shredding provision, Section 1519, that punishes those who knowingly destroy or conceal “any record, document, or tangible object” in order to impede an investigation. To Mr. Yates’s surprise, he was convicted of violating Section 1519 and sentenced to 30 days in prison and three years of supervised release. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit upheld his conviction by narrowly focusing on the dictionary definition of “tangible object.”

Now, on appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Yates asks the Court to overturn his conviction on the ground that he did not have fair notice that the destruction of fish would fall under Section 1519. We agree. In an amicus brief supporting Mr. Yates, Cato argues that well-established canons of statutory construction—that is, the rules that guide judges in interpreting statutes—do not allow Section 1519 to be reasonably interpreted to apply to fish. Those canons teach us that a word in a statute, such as “tangible,” should be given more precise content based on its surrounding words, and that it should only be applied objects similar to the precise words preceding it. In short, the other words in the statute, such as “record” and “document,” modify the term “tangible object” to include things like hard drives and diskettes, not fish.

Moreover, an all-encompassing reading of “tangible object” would render the words “record” and “document” unnecessary. Additionally, the broader context of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act illuminates the meaning of “tangible object.” The Act focuses on financial fraud in the context of companies, not destroying fish. Thus, the words “tangible object” should be read differently in Sarbanes-Oxley than they would be in, say, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. If the term “tangible object” is read as broadly as the Eleventh Circuit’s interpretation, it could potentially criminalize an unfathomable range of activities. As such, it would not provide adequate notice to those who may violate the law. Individuals have a right to fair notice of what conduct is proscribed by the law so they may plan their actions accordingly. Legislatures, not courts, should define criminal activity.

Read Cato’s brief here