Monday morning the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert in Yates v. United States, a case challenging the application of a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley law to a fisherman’s destruction of illegally caught fish. Yates is a potentially important case concerning statutory interpretation and the expansion of federal criminal law.
At issue in Yates is 18 U.S.C. §1519 which makes 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 guilty of a federal crime. The provision is often referred to as the “anti-shredding” provision because it was intended to criminalize the destruction of records that could reveal fraudulent activity by corporate managers and the like. (Recall that Sarbanes-Oxley was passed in response to corporate accounting scandals at Enron and other firms.) Here, however, John Yates was criminally prosecuted because he allegedly destroyed three fish — three red grouper to be precise — that were too small to be caught legally. According to Yates, this was improper because he could not have had fair notice that a fish would be considered a “tangible object” for purposes of §1519. Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley to deal with one sort of criminal conduct, but federal fishery enforcers sought to use it for something else in order to obtain criminal penalties.
Yates was not represented by a high-profile member of the Supreme Court bar. He sought leave to proceed in forma pauperis (which the court granted), and his petition was filed by the federal public defender. The issue of fair notice he raises is particularly important, however, as it highlights the potential unfairness that can result when federal agencies adopt unduly expansive interpretations of federal criminal laws. For this reason, his petition was supported by amici from Cause of Action, a right-leaning public interest organization, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, both of which are concerned about federal overreach in criminal law.