A Florida fisherman convicted of tossing undersized grouper off his boat is off the hook after a divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that he should not have been prosecuted under a law targeting accounting fraud.
In a 5-4 opinion, the justices threw out the conviction of commercial fishing boat captain John Yates, who was prosecuted under a law passed in the wake of the Enron scandal.
Yates was convicted of getting rid of fish he had caught that were under the minimum legal size permitted in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Associated Press.
A Florida fish and wildlife officer said Yates illegally dumped the smaller fish overboard to avoid prosecution.
The law's anti-shredding provision prohibits destruction of "any tangible object" during a federal investigation. But Yates argued that the law was aimed at the destruction of financial documents — not fish.
Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that given the context and purpose of the law, it covers only objects used to record or preserve information and "does not include every tangible object found on land or in the sea."
She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a separate opinion agreeing with the result.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said Congress intended the law to have a wide scope to ban destruction of any physical evidence that could thwart law enforcement.
"A fisherman like John Yates, who dumps undersized fish to avoid a fine, is no less blameworthy than one who shreds his vessel's catch log for the same reason," she said.
Kagan's dissent was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Yates was charged under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which prohibits knowingly altering or destroying "any record, document, or tangible object" with the intention of obstructing an investigation. Congress passed the law after the Enron scandal, when scores of documents were shredded to conceal wrongdoing.
A federal jury convicted Yates and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Atlanta upheld the conviction.