At least, a fish is not a "tangible object" in the context of 18 U. S. C. §1519:
Whoever 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 title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
We noted last year that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the holding of a lower court that a fish counts as a "tangible object" for the purposes of §1519 ("Is a fish a 'tangible object'?", 4/30/2014), and today the U.S. Supreme Court announced a 5-4 decision in Yates v. United States, reversing the lower court's judgment:
While conducting an offshore inspection of a commercial fishing vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, a federal agent found that the ship’s catch contained undersized red grouper, in violation of federal conservation regulations. The officer instructed the ship’s captain, petitioner Yates, to keep the undersized fish segregated from the rest of the catch until the ship returned to port. After the officer departed, Yates instead told a crew member to throw the undersized fish overboard. For this offense, Yates was charged with destroying, concealing, and covering up undersized fish to impede a federal investigation, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §1519. That section provides that a person may be fined or imprisoned for up to 20 years if he “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” a federal investigation. At trial, Yates moved for a judgment of acquittal on the §1519 charge. Pointing to §1519’s origin as a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a law designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation, Yates argued that §1519’s reference to “tangible object” subsumes objects used to store information, such as computer hard drives, not fish. The District Court denied Yates’s motion, and a jury found him guilty of violating §1519. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the conviction, concluding that §1519 applies to the destruction or concealment of fish because, as objects having physical form, fish fall within the dictionary definition of “tangible object.”
Held: The judgment is reversed, and the case is remanded.
The written opinions are interesting — from Justice Ginsburg, on behalf of Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Breyer, and Justice Sotomayor; from Justice Alito, concurring; and from Justice Kagan, dissenting.
The oral argument in this case is also interesting, and can be found here, in both audio and transcript form.