The Sarbanes-Oxley Act created a new obstruction of justice law that imposes stiff criminal penalties on 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, 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 [the Bankruptcy Code].” Just how literally are we to take the term "tangible object, however? A new article discusses an upcoming Supreme Court case whose facts push that question to the outer limits:
Abstract: Occasionally the Supreme Court of the United States hears a case simply to correct an injustice. That happened in Yates v. United States. Yates, a fishing captain, threw back three undersized fish. He later was convicted of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a statute designed to prevent corporate fraud, on the ground that he destroyed a “record, document, or tangible object,” even though the fish could not remotely be deemed a financial record or an information storage device. The court of appeals upheld Yates’s conviction by relying entirely on a dictionary definition of the term “tangible object.” That literal-mindedness lead to an uncommonly silly result. The Supreme Court should not only reverse the judgment of conviction, but also underscore two canons of construction. First, courts should use common sense when interpreting criminal laws, rather than be slaves to the dictionary. Second, the Rule of Lenity is a “rule” of lenity, not just an “option” of lenity, and it is an especially important rule when a defendant faces a potentially severe sentence.