Did government go overboard in prosecuting fisherman? Justices hearing case of missing grouper

Markets Associated Press

Did the federal government go overboard when it prosecuted a Florida fisherman for throwing undersized grouper off his boat?

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Commercial fishing boat captain John Yates says he was wrongly convicted of destroying evidence — namely the fish — under a law passed in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal that was really meant to stop financial documents from being shredded.

The Supreme Court was to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that business groups and other critics have derided as an example of government overreach. The Obama administration says it simply was enforcing the plain language of a law that prohibits destruction of "any tangible object" during a federal investigation.

The case started in 2007 when a Florida fish and wildlife officer boarded Yates' boat in the Gulf of Mexico and discovered 72 grouper that appeared to be less than 20 inches long, the minimum length permitted by law. The officer ordered Yates to return to port so the fish could be seized.

But when the vessel arrived, the officer found only 69 undersized fish on board. The officer suspected these were not the same fish he had measured before. A crewmember later testified that Yates had ordered the undersized fish to be tossed overboard and replaced.

Prosecutors charged Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, passed in response to the Enron accounting scandal when scores of documents were shredded to conceal wrongdoing. Part of the law prohibits knowingly altering or destroying "any record, document, or tangible object" with the intent to obstruct an investigation.

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A federal jury convicted Yates of dumping the undersized fish. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The federal appeals court based in Atlanta upheld the conviction.

Yates argues that the phrase "tangible object" means items used to preserve information such as computers, servers or other storage devices. He says no one would reasonably expect that Congress intended the document-shredding provisions the law to apply to a fisherman throwing red grouper into the Gulf of Mexico.

Even former Rep. Mike Oxley, R-Ohio, who helped draft the law, submitted a brief arguing that it applies only to business records and devices that store records "like hard drives and CD-ROMs. Not fish."

But the administration argues that Congress wanted to address a loophole in federal law in which no statute expressly prohibited the destruction of evidence before legal proceedings had begun. The government says the text of the law makes no distinction between documents and other types of physical evidence.

The case is Yates v. U.S., 13-7451.

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