YATES v. UNITED STATES
On August 17, 2007, John L. Yates and his crew prepared his fishing vessel for a commercial fishing trip into federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. On August 23, 2007, Officer John Jones, a field officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission who was empowered to enforce federal fisheries laws, boarded the vessel and noticed red grouper fish that appeared to be smaller than the requisite 20 inches. Officer Jones measured the grouper that appeared smaller and found a total of 72 fish that measured under 20 inches. Officer Jones placed these fish in wooden crates, issued Yates a citation, and informed Yates that the National Marine Fisheries Service would seize these fish upon the vessel’s return to port. Contrary to Officer Jones’ directions, Yates instructed his crew to throw the fish in question overboard and replace them with larger fish. When the vessel returned to port and the fish were measured on August 27, Officer Jones suspected that Yates had disposed of the fish he had measured.
Yates was charged with destruction and falsification of evidence. At trial he argued that the fish thrown overboard were not actually undersized because Officer Jones had measured the fish with their mouths closed, which shortens the length of fish. The district court found Yates guilty of disposing of undersized fish and therefore in violation of a statute that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal “a tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a governmental investigation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Are fish considered “tangible objects” for the purpose of the statute that makes it a crime to destroy or conceal tangible objects to impede a governmental investigation, even though the term is undefined and exists in a statute that largely refers to record-keeping documents?