[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] in two cases on Wednesday. In Yates v. United States [transcript, PDF] the court considered the definition of “tangible objects” in 18 USC § 1519 [text], a statute that criminalizes 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. In this case, Yates, a fisherman, instructed his crew to throw 72 red grouper fish overboard after a federal government employee determined that they were smaller than legally permitted. Yates was then charged with destruction of evidence. Yates’ counsel argued before the court that “tangible objects” refers only to “tangible object used to preserve information,” such as documents. However, the justices were quick to point out that Congress could have used the language “tangible object used to preserve information” in the text of the statute, but chose not to do so. Meanwhile, the Assistant to the Solicitor General, arguing on behalf of the government, was questioned by the justices over the harsh twenty-year sentence being levied for the minor offense of throwing fish overboard.
The court also heard Johnson v. United States [transcript, PDF], addressing whether the mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act [LII backgrounder]. Johnson, the founder of the Aryan Liberation Movement, was arrested after admitting plans to violently attack a variety of individuals and institutions. In his sentencing, a prior conviction of possession of a short-barreled shotgun required the judge to impose a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence. Johnson argues that mere possession is not inherently violent, and that the prior conviction of possession should not have caused the imposition of the mandatory sentence. Meanwhile, the government argued that people who illegally possess sawed-off shotguns present a true risk of violence and physical injury.