Several U.S. Supreme Court justices were skeptical of arguments Wednesday from a government lawyer defending the prosecution of a Florida fisherman who threw three undersized red grouper back into the Gulf of Mexico.
The case stemmed from a search in 2007 of Miss Katie, a boat owned by fisherman John L. Yates, according to a New York Times report. John Jones, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, boarded the boat at sea and saw grouper that seemed to be smaller than the 20-inch length that was the minimum legal size at that time.
Jones measured the fish and placed the 72 he deemed too small in a crate. He issued a citation and instructed Yates to take the crate to port for seizure, but Yates threw the fish overboard and had his crew replace them with larger ones.
A second inspection in port found only 69 undersized fish and aroused suspicions. A crewmember eventually told law enforcement officials what happened.
Yates was subsequently punished for violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a federal law aimed primarily at white-collar crime. The law imposes a maximum sentence of 20 years for the destruction of “any record, document or tangible object” in order to obstruct an investigation. Yates was sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment.
The fish were the “record” in this instance, but Yates argued that fish weren’t the sort of thing the law was meant to cover. Seeming to agree, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked what people would say “if you stopped them on the street and said, ‘Is a fish a record, document or tangible object?’ ”
Justice Antonin Scalia said, “I don’t think you’d get a polite answer.”
However, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said it would be odd to let Yates throw fish overboard, destroying evidence, but allow him to be prosecuted for tearing up photographs of the fish. Government lawyer Ramon Martinez told the court that Yates’ crime involved lying and a coverup and was a serious one.
Nonetheless, some of the justices faulted the decision to prosecute him. “What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?” Scalia asked.
The justices have been wary of stretching federal laws to fit minor crimes, ruling in June in Bond v. United States, for instance, that a chemical weapons treaty could not be used as the basis for a prosecution of a domestic dispute.