U.S. Supreme Court

Is a fish a 'tangible object'? Justices debate reach of document destruction law

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Several justices appeared to side with a fisherman Wednesday during oral arguments on whether a law barring the destruction of evidence was broad enough to snag him for attempting to hide undersize fish from authorities.

Among those criticizing the decision to prosecute under the Enron-era law was Justice Antonin Scalia, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the National Law Journal report. Referring to the potential maximum penalty, Scalia asked, “What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?”

The government lawyer defending the prosecution “underwent blistering and sometimes derisive questioning” by the justices, according to the National Law Journal account.

The commercial fisherman, John Yates, was convicted for violating the anti-shredding provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which bars destruction, mutilation, concealment or falsification of “any document, record or tangible object” with the intent to impede a federal investigation. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison, well below the maximum 20-year penalty.

A Florida fish and wildlife officer had boarded Yates’ boat in 2007 and set aside 72 fish he believed were too small under federal size limits. The officer told Yates to keep the fish as evidence, but when the fisherman returned to shore there were only 69 undersized fish. A crew member later testified that some of the fish were thrown overboard.

Yates’ lawyer, assistant federal defender John Badalamenti of Tampa, had argued the law was only intended to apply to the destruction of records, documents and devices designed to preserve information.

The case is Yates v. United States.

Related article:

ABA Journal: “Fisherman convicted of violating Sarbanes-Oxley will be heard by the Supreme Court”

ABAJournal.com: “Does Sarbanes-Oxley apply to destruction of fish evidence? SCOTUS to decide”

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