Last month, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in Yates v. United States, a case involving a commercial fisherman and the destruction of evidence. In 2007, John Yates, a commercial fisherman in Florida, was stopped by state officials who determined that seventy two red grouper were undersized. The official cited Mr. Yates and ordered him to preserve the evidence- the undersized grouper - and return to shore. On the return trip however, Mr. Yates and his crew threw the short fish overboard, and then tried to claim the legal sized fish onboard were improperly measured by the citing state official.
Instead of being prosecuted for fish and game violations, Mr. Yates was charged under a provision of the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, originally created to broaden federal white collar criminal laws after the Enron Scandal. Mr. Yates was charged with violation of the portion of the Act that makes it a crime when someone “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to influence or obstruct a federal investigation, even one that has not yet been officially initiated. Mr. Yates was convicted and served 30 days in jail, though his potential sentence for violating this provision of Sarbanes-Oxley could have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the conviction, finding that the fish qualified as “tangible objects” under the Act.
During the Supreme Court’s November 5, 2014 oral arguments, the incongruousness of applying a white collar law aimed at preventing the destruction of financial records to a commercial fisherman discarding undersized fish was not lost on the Justices. While the Justices debated the primary question of whether a grouper is a “tangible object” under the Act, they directed much of their ire on the original decision to prosecute Mr. Yates under Sarbanes-Oxley. The Court’s decision is expected in June. You can read more about Mr. Yates’ case and listen to recordings of the argument itself at the SCOTUSblog.