Oversized Frauds, Undersized Fish, and Deconstruction of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act
Occasionally the Supreme Court of the United States hears a case simply to correct an injustice. That happened in United States v. Yates. 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 led 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.
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