Supreme Court rules in evidence destruction case

Supreme Court rules in evidence destruction case

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday handed down its ruling in Yates v. US [opinion, PDF], rejecting the prosecution of a fisherman for throwing undersized fish overboard. The petitioner, a fisherman, had been charged with destruction of evidence for instructing his crew to throw back 72 red grouper fish after a federal government employee determined that they were smaller than legally permitted. The majority opinion, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, states that the court resists reading 18 USC § 1519 expansively to create a “coverall apoliation of evidence statute,” despite it being advisable. That decision, the court stated, was left to Congress. Had Congress intended for the language to be all encompassing, the opinion observed, it would have had no reason to include the specific examples of “document” and “record” in the section’s language. The court, reversing the judgment of the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, held that a “tangible object” as meant by § 1519 is “one used to record or preserve information.”

Oral arguments for this cases were heard [JURIST report] by the court in November. 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. 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.