The United States criminal justice system is supposed to have myriad safeguards protecting criminal defendants. The safeguards in the U.S. Constitution, including guarantees of due process, have been broadly applied. Defendants are not only entitled to a fair trial, but are also protected from ex post facto laws, which are laws that are passed to apply retroactively. The structure of the U.S. justice system works to help maintain the rule of law, which is a broad set of principles requiring governments to exercise power in accordance with clear legal principles and well-established rules.
In reality, however, there has been a troubling trend towards overcharging defendants, prosecuting people for serious crimes under laws that no reasonable person would believe apply to the situation. One clear example of this is in a case that recently came before the U.S. Supreme Court: Yates v. United States.
In Yates, a fisherman was caught illegally catching grouper that were undersized. Officials told Yates to keep the fish in order to preserve the evidence of his alleged crime. Instead of complying with the order, Yates instructed the crew to throw the undersized grouper overboard.
Yates was not simply charged with catching undersized fish. Instead, federal authorities charged him under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted after the Enron Scandal in order to prevent financial firms from shredding documents that could prove to be incriminating. Sarbanes-Oxley’s language in Section 1519 prohibits the destruction of any records, documents, or tangible objects with the intention of obstructing a federal investigation. The potential penalty for violating this code section could include 20 years imprisonment.
Yates not unreasonably believed that he had been denied fair notice that throwing a fish overboard could be a violation of Sarbanes-Oxley that would result in 20-years of jail time. The dispute regarding whether the statute could apply against Yates made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that Yates could not have violated Section 1519 because the fish were not tangible objects under the definition of the statute, as interpreted by its overall language and title.
The majority opinion of the five justices who voted against applying the statute to Yates focused on the definition of a tangible object and interpreted the Statute narrowly to define a tangible object under 1519 to only include an object “used to record or preserve information.”
In the dissent, however, a straight textual approach was applied and the four dissenting judges argued that “tangible objects” in Sarbanes-Oxley should have its ordinary meaning. The fish was touchable, and thus was a tangible object because it is touchable.
However, Part III of the dissent also included some very important language. The dissent discussed the disturbing possibility that a person could potentially be exposed to 20-years imprisonment just for tampering with a physical object that might have evidentiary value, writing: “That brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U.S. Code.”
The dissenters called Section 1519 a bad law because it is overly broad and warned that this is not an anomaly but instead is an “emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.”
Statutes are being written too broadly or are poorly worded so they can apply in too many situations. Prosecutors are aggressive in charging defendants with serious crimes under these overly broad statutes. The result is that someone who threw a few fish overboard was one vote away from spending two decades in prison.
These troubling trends in the criminal justice system make it more important than ever for every defendant who is charged with any crime to be represented by a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer who can aggressively protect his or her rights.