A narrowly divided Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with a Florida fisherman, throwing out his conviction for tossing evidence — undersize grouper — back into the Gulf of Mexico under a federal law aimed mostly at white-collar crime.
The fisherman, John L. Yates, was convicted of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which imposes a maximum sentence of 20 years for the destruction of “any record, document or tangible object” in order to obstruct an investigation.In two opinions, five justices accepted Mr. Yates’s argument that fish were not the sort of tangible objects with which the law was concerned. Their analysis was based on a close reading of the words and structure of the law.The case arose from a 2007 search of the Miss Katie, Mr. Yates’s fishing vessel. A Florida field officer, John Jones, boarded it at sea and noticed fish that seemed less than 20 inches long, which was under the minimum legal size of red grouper at the time.Mr. Jones, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and a federal deputy, measured the fish and placed the 72 he deemed too small in a crate. He issued a citation and instructed Mr. Yates to take the crate to port for seizure.But Mr. Yates had the fish thrown overboard and replaced with larger ones. A second inspection in port aroused suspicions, and a crew member eventually told law enforcement officials what had happened.Mr. Yates was prosecuted under the financial fraud law, which was enacted after the collapse of Enron, the giant energy company. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment.Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for four justices, seemed to concede that the term “tangible objects” might in some settings encompass fish.“Ordinarily,” she wrote, “a word’s usage accords with its dictionary definition. In law as in life, however, the same words, placed in different contexts, sometimes mean different things.”In announcing her opinion from the bench, Justice Ginsburg used more colorful language. “Fish one may fry,” she said, “but may one falsify, or make a false entry in the sea dwelling creatures?” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined her opinion.
The opinion is U.S. v. Yates. Even though Kagan dissented, I like this passage:
Still and all, I tend to think, for the reasons the plurality gives, that §1519 is a bad law--too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion. And I'd go further: In those ways, §1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.