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Divided Supreme Court lets fisherman off hook for tossing undersized grouper

In a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron scandal and intended to prevent the destruction of documents and financial data, could not be applied to fish.

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On Wednesday, a divided Supreme Court ruled that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, could not be applied to fish.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File)

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The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a federal statute passed to prevent the destruction of documents and financial data cannot also be applied broadly to undersized fish caught by a commercial fisherman.

The court voted 5 to 4 in a case requiring the justices to interpret what Congress meant in a law prohibiting the destruction or concealment of “any… tangible object” with intent to obstruct a federal investigation. 

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The majority justices agreed with the arguments of John Yates, a commercial fisherman in Florida, who faced up to 20 years in prison under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for obstructing justice by throwing undersized red grouper back into the sea to prevent federal agents from prosecuting him for violating fish size limits.

In contrast to the obstruction charge, the underlying offense of catching undersized fish carries a few years in prison, at most. 

In a plurality decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justice Samuel Alito, the court said prosecutors could not use the term “tangible object” in the statute as a catchall to prosecute destruction of any and all types of physical evidence. Instead, the phrase was intended to satisfy a narrower goal – punishing efforts to destroy documents and stored data, the court ruled.

“Tangible object [in the statute], we conclude, is better read to cover only objects one can use to record or preserve information, not all objects in the physical world,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the court should apply the statute the way Congress wrote it, featuring a broad reading of “tangible object.”

“The plurality searches far and wide for anything – anything – to support its interpretation of [the statute],” Justice Kagan wrote. “But its fishing expedition comes up empty.” 

The decision stems from a 2007 encounter in the Gulf of Mexico between Yates and a fisheries officer. The officer boarded the fishing vessel, the Miss Katie, and upon inspection identified 72 undersized red grouper. 

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The officer issued a citation for harvesting undersized fish and instructed Yates to place the fish in a box and present it to authorities when he returned to port.

After the officer left, Yates instructed his crew to fling the small fish overboard and replace them in the box with larger grouper.

When the Miss Katie returned to port, officials discovered the discrepancy. Federal agents obtained a confession from one of the crew members. 

Yates was charged with obstructing a federal investigation by destroying evidence. That federal crime carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison. 

A jury convicted him. Yates filed an appeal.

In charging Yates, federal prosecutors relied on a portion of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a measure passed in the wake of the Enron scandal. The obstruction section prohibits destruction of “any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct” any matter within the jurisdiction of the federal government. 

The specific question in the case was whether “tangible object” can mean “fish.”

In her dissent, Kagan concludes that it can. “Courts have understood the phrases “tangible objects” and “tangible things” in the Federal Rules of Criminal and Civil Procedure to cover everything from guns to drugs to machinery to… animals,” she said.

“No surprise, then, that – until today – courts have uniformly applied the term ‘tangible object’ [in the statute] in the same way,” Kagan said.

In his concurrence, Justice Alito said the case presented a close question, but in the end the balance tipped in favor of a narrower reading of the statute.

“Although many of those verbs [in the statute] could apply to nouns as far-flung as salamanders, satellites, or sand dunes, the last phrase in the list – ‘makes a false entry in’ – makes no sense outside of filekeeping,” Alito said. “How does one make a false entry in a fish?” 

“Not one of the verbs, moreover, cannot be applied to filekeeping – certainly not in the way that ‘makes a false entry in’ is always inconsistent with the aquatic,” he said.

Although he faced up to 20 years in prison, Yates was ultimately sentenced to 30 days incarceration.

The high court action reverses an appeals court decision upholding Yates’ conviction. The case was remanded to the lower courts to apply the opinion.

Joining Ginsburg’s plurality were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan’s dissent was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas.

The case was Yates v. United States (13-7451).