Criminal Justice

Supreme Court rules in Yates v. United States

Earlier today, the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Yates v. United States. Previously written about on these pages, the case arose when Mr. Yates was accused of violating the anti-document shredding provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, legislation passed shortly after the 2001 Enron scandal, for throwing three undersized red grouper overboard after an encounter with Florida Fish and Wildlife.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court rejected the government’s broad interpretation of the anti-shredding statute (18 U.S.C § 1519) and held that a “tangible object” within §1519’s compass is one used to record or preserve information and does not apply to all objects in the physical world, including fish. Further, the Court found that if traditional tools of statutory construction left any doubt to the meaning of “tangible object,” it would be appropriate to invoke the rule of lenity, which requires that ambiguities in a criminal statute be resolved in favor of the defendant.

Although the dissent differed in its statutory interpretation of the anti-shredding language at question in the case, the dissenting opinion noted that the case “brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.”

Yates v. United States was decided upon grounds of statutory construction, but serves to highlight the problem of the vast and increasing size and scope of criminal law in America. As it did with Mr. Yates, the network of ambiguous and complex criminal laws threatens to place any law-abiding American on the wrong side of the justice system.

Watch the story about the Yates case below.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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