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Something Fishy in the US Courts

Written By: A. Wilt

February 2015

In 2007, James Yates was the captain of the My Katie, fishing off the coast of Florida, when agents from the National Marine Fisheries Service inspected his boat. In the course of their inspection, the officers found that Yates had caught and kept undersized red grouper, an act that is typically punished by a fine or a fishing license suspension. The officers instructed him to keep the undersized fish separate from the legal fish and to return to shore. When the officers left the boat, Yates told his crew to throw some of the fish overboard.

Rather than pursuing the fishing violations, prosecutors charged Yates under 18 USC 1519, better known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, of illegally destroying the evidence of the seventy-two undersized fish he caught. That’s the same Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was written in response to the Enron financial scandal and was meant to deter white-collar criminals from destroying evidence.

In 2011, Yates was tried in federal court for three crimes: destroying evidence, making a false statement to a federal official, and obstruction of justice. At trial, he was acquitted of the false statement charge and convicted on the other two charges. Under Sarbanes-Oxley, the obstruction of justice count could have led to a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Yates appealed, and in 2013 a federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling interpreting the broad, literal meaning of ‘tangible object.”

Back in the USA news Story: Something Fishy in the US Courts.
John Yates, convicted under a major federal document-shredding statute for throwing undersized grouper overboard, stands along the dock in Cortez, Fla.(Photo: Chip J Litherland, for USA TODAY

The Supreme Court granted Yates’ appeal and heard his case last November. In his brief to the Supreme Court, Yates argues that the ‘tangible object’ referred to in the Sarbanes-Oxley act is unclear and, in context, refers to documents and is meant to prevent white collar criminals from destroying files and other paper evidence. His lawyers argued that throughout the section, the law refers to ‘documents’ and ‘files’ and pushes forth the theory that the ‘tangible object’ language refers to items meant to contain information, such as computers and was never meant as any physical object.

Today, in a 5-4 decision, the Court sided with Yates, ruling that:

“In determining the meaning of 'tangible object' in §1519, it is appropriate, before we choose the harsher alternative, to require that Congress should have spoken in language that is clear and definite.”

Beyond the jokes throughout the case, including perhaps the only dissent in history to quote Dr. Seuss...
As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” Ante, at 7 (punctuation and citation omitted). A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. (See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960))...
the court also gave a clear indication about how it intends to frame questions regarding sensible punishment. Many seem to feel that prosecutors are not doing a good job deciding when to bring criminal charges and what charges to bring and the Court seemed to feel that way as well. During the oral arguments, when asked about the application of this statute to the crime at issue, the lawyer for the government said that when prosecutors try cases, they pursue "the offense that's the most severe under the law." Justice Scalia responded by saying: "If that's going to be the Justice Department's position, then we're going to have to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are."

In fact, the federal statutes are extensive. Just for quick examples, it’s a federal crime to slow down a mailman (18 U.S. Code § 1701), use the 4-H club emblem without authorization (18 U.S.C. §707) or to try to convince a ship’s captain to turn pirate (18 U.S.C. §1657). With over 200 years of laws on the books, there are bound to be overlaps in coverage and laws that are just not practical for the purpose they were intended. There are also bound to be punishments written in statute that reflect the beliefs of a point in history that no longer fits with our current social climate.

Because many criminal laws are written in response to a scandal, such as Sarbanes-Oxley in response to the Enron scandal, laws are often written during a hypersensitive environment and can be too broad with effects that the legislation never intended. They can also be difficult to overturn or limit after the fact, since politicians don’t want to appear to be soft on crime.

It’s doubtful that the authors of Sarbanes Oxley ever imagined a case where the law they were crafting would be used to prosecute a small commercial fisherman for undersized fish. It’s doubtful that the authors of the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998 could foresee that it would be used in an assault case of a woman who tried to give her husband’s mistress a rash at issue in the 2013 Bond v United States. In both cases, the charges brought seem far too harsh for the facts at hand.

No one is questioning whether John Yates should have had a fine for keeping undersized fish. No one questioned whether Carol Ann Bond should have faced assault charges. What is at issue is whether the statutes they were charged under were the appropriate ones. Luckily, in both cases, the petitioners were let off the hook, so to speak. However, these cases do raise questions about whether something’s off in the way our government decides under what statute to prosecute a crime. After all, federal prosecutors, and US Court system, should really have bigger fish to fry.


Other Articles of Interest:

American Sniper Trial Opens Amid Questions About Publicity and PTSD

Update: Jurors Reject Insanity Defense in 'American Sniper' Trial

Oddities of 2014

Sport Fishing in America


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