April 08, 2015 Practice Points

SCOTUS: Fish Are Not "Tangible Objects" under 18 U.S.C. § 1519

The Court held that “tangible object” does not include any object, but is instead limited to objects used to record or preserve information.

By Andrea Halverson – April 8, 2015

After ship captain Yates instructed a crewmember to throw undersized fish overboard because they were in violation of federal regulations, he was charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 1519 and subsequently convicted. Section 1519, originally enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, prohibits one from knowingly altering, destroying, mutilating, concealing, covering up, falsifying, or making a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.”

Yates appealed his conviction, arguing that fish are not “tangible objects” as that term is used in section 1519. The Eleventh Circuit rejected that argument and affirmed Yates’s conviction, but the Supreme Court reversed in a plurality opinion in Yates v. United States (No. 13-7451) (Feb. 25, 2015). The Court held that “tangible object” pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1519 does not include any object, but is instead limited to objects used to record or preserve information. The Court reasoned that this restraint on the scope of “tangible object” was necessary to effectuate the context and intent of the statute as “§ 1519 was intended to prohibit, in particular, corporate document-shredding to hide evidence of financial wrongdoing.” The plurality rejected the argument that section 1519 was meant as a “general ban on the spoliation of evidence, covering all physical items that might be relevant to any matter under federal investigation.” In addition to relying on several canons of construction, the plurality supported its interpretation of “tangible object” by finding that section 1519 would de duplicative of section 1512(c) within the same statute if “tangible object” were defined by its plain language meaning.

The dissent, authored by Justice Kagan and joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, accepted the broader meaning of “tangible object” and rejected the plurality’s use of particular canons of construction when the term at issue lacked ambiguity.

— Andrea Halverson, Stetler, Duffy & Rotert, Ltd., Chicago, IL


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