Supreme Court catches case of Florida fisherman

McClatchy Washington BureauApril 28, 2014 

The Supreme Court on Monday caught the case of a Florida commercial fisherman convicted of destroying evidence amid a federal investigation.

The evidence consisted of red grouper fish, allegedly underweight.

In this strange-sounding scenario, 62-year-old fisherman John L. Yates was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail following a 2007 investigation into his fishing activities in the Gulf of Mexico. The charges included violating 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which prohibits the destruction of a “tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a government investigation.

That statute was written with Wall Street in mind.

“The important question presented...boils down to whether a fish is a ‘tangible object’ under the ‘anti-shredding’ criminal provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, entitled "Destruction, alteration, or falsification of records in Federal investigations and bankruptcy,” wrote Yates’ Tampa-based federal public defender, John L. Badalamenti.

The case arose after an inspector boarded Yates’ boat, the Miss Katie, and allegedly discovered red grouper that appeared to be less than 20 inches in length, the minimum size limit for red grouper at that time.

The investigator issued Yates a citation and instructed Yates not to disturb the undersized fish. Instead, Yates allegedly instructed his crew to throw undersized fish overboard. All told, while the investigator says he first counted 72 undersized red grouper aboard the Miss Katie, only 69 were found when the boat returned to shore.

Which means, as Yates puts it, he was facing serious prison time for the alleged tossing out of three fish.

“Even if (Yates) is correct that Section 1519 was conceived principally in response to white-collar crime and document destruction, that would not confine its application to that one form of obstructive conduct to the exclusion of obstructive acts like (his),” the solicitor general’s office reasoned.

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