On Wednesday, a federal judge presiding over the trial of two men accused of a 2008 murder near Alderpoint ruled that prosecutors may not try them for torching their alleged victim’s car in order to destroy evidence.
Why not? Because burning your murder victim’s car to destroy evidence is not a crime.
To recap the case: On Sept. 10, 2008, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office found a burned-out Saab belonging to San Francisco resident Reetpaul Rana on the shores of Big Lagoon. Three days later, Rana’s body was discovered halfway between Garberville and Alderpoint, near the intersection of Alderpoint Road and Dyerville Loop Road. Everyone knew pretty quickly that the murder was the result of a marijuana deal gone bad, and the case was widely covered in both the local and the Bay Area press.
It took until 2010 for sheriff’s office investigators to break the case open and make an arrest. Ryan Christopher Carroll, who was by then living in Washington state, was taken into custody in January of that year. In October 2011, police arrested a second suspect – Robert “Roots” Lee, who was then living in Vermont. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office took the case federal in 2013.
According to the indictment, the feds believe that Carroll fired the shots that killed Rana. Lee, they believe, conspired with him to cover up the crime, and also committed various federally indictable drug- and gun-related offenses in or around the time of the murder. Key to the consipiracy charge leveled against them is that the two drove Rana’s car to Big Lagoon and burned it after Carroll shot Rana dead near where his body was found.
But District Court Judge Edward Chen ruled Wednesday that burning the victim’s car was no crime at all, and dropped all counts against the defendants that pertained to conspiracy to destroy evidence in the case – a charge that, on its own, could have netted each defendant a 20-year sentence. In dropping the charges, Chen wrote that the prosecution could not prove that Rana’s car was, in legal terms, a “tangible object.”
To the contrary, the judge rather admonished prosecutors for attempting to do so, titling one section of his opinion, simply: “A Saab is Not a Tangible Object.”
Strange as it may sound, the Supreme Court essentially mandated this outcome when it ruled, back in February of this year, that a Florida fisherman committed no crime when he dumped undersized fish off his boat with the express purpose of preventing fishing regulators from seizing them as evidence. The case, Yates v. United States, was a big win for the scofflaw fisherman, and it established the principle that the key federal statute preventing criminal suspects from destroying evidence – 18 U.S. Code section 1519 – related only to “tangible evidence,” and set the precedent for “tangible evidence” to be interpreted very narrowly, to include only documents and other items that store information (including, paradoxically, seemingly intangible computer files.)
An episode of Slate Magazine’s “Amicus” podcast from earlier this year lays out the fun time that the Supreme Court had at oral arguments during Yates. The audience burst out laughing several times at the fish jokes, and justices were incredulous at the notion that anyone could consider what the fisherman did a serious crime. Fast forward to about 22:30:
It’s not certain whether Justice Antonin Scalia, the most incredulous, would have considered that the ruling immediately led the courts to decriminalize the destruction of evidence in murder cases, but that is indeed what happened. Chen followed Yates very closely in his opinion striking the consipiracy and obstruction of justice in the Sana murder case, and utterly decimated the prosecutors’ hail mary attempt to argue that the Saab was a “tangible object” because it had, for instance, an odometer.
While one may conceive of a case where one destroys a car because of the information recorded on the odometer, that is not what is here. The defendants are charged with allegedly destroying the Saab qua Saab (the victim’s car), and not the information in the odometer, to obstruct an investigation. In sum, the indictment fails to allege Defendants destroyed a tangible object in order to obstruct an investigation.
This all seems strange and counterintutive, but it’s not clear that burning your murder victim’s car to destroy evidence is a crime under California law, either – but for a different reason. Under Section 135 of the California Penal Code, the car probably would, in fact, be considered the rough equivalent of a “tangible object” – evidence of a crime, protected from destruction – but if an investigation were not already underway, he would be in the clear.
This write-up on the Penal Code section 135 from the Shouse Law Group gives an example:
Randy commits a murder and then immediately burns the clothes he was wearing when he did it. At the time when he burns the clothes, no one even knows that the victim has been killed. Randy may be guilty of murder, but he is not guilty of destroying evidence … because when he burned the clothes, there was no investigation ongoing yet.
And even if Randy were guilty, it’s only a misdemeanor.