The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case about undersized grouper. / Michael A. Schwarz, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court smelled something fishy Monday.
The justices agreed to consider the case of a commercial fisherman found with 72 undersized grouper -- and ultimately convicted under a federal law aimed at corporate fraud and malfeasance.
In taking a case without any of the typical criteria, such as differences among federal appeals courts, the justices appear to be targeting what a criminal defenders' group called the nation's "overcriminalization epidemic."
The Florida case of 62-year-old John Yates, which will be heard next fall, follows on the heels of a case soon to be decided by the court in which the federal government used an international chemical weapons treaty to prosecute a jilted wife who tried to injure her husband's lover.
Here, the feds used the Sarbanes-Oxley law passed by Congress in 2002 to protect investors against fraudulent corporate disclosures. Under that law, Yates could have been on the hook for a 20-year sentence -- more than three months per fish. He eventually was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of supervised release, which he is still fulfilling.
The latest case dates back to 2007, when a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer boarded Yates' vessel, the Miss Katie, in the Gulf of Mexico and found 72 red grouper measuring less than the legal minimum of 20 inches.
The officer ordered Yates to bring the contraband to shore. But when it arrived, the Miss Katie was carrying only 69 undersized fish. At trial, a deckhand alleged that Yates ordered the original batch dumped overboard, but that never was proven.
Yates was charged and convicted for destroying evidence because he came back three fish short, and for concealing his crime. He claimed that federal officials measured the fish with their mouths closed and tails pinched, thereby denying the grouper their full potential. He also said a key witness' testimony had been excluded.
The Sarbanes-Oxley law makes it a criminal offense to "destroy, mutilate, conceal [or] cover up ... any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States."
The Justice Department, seeking to stop the Supreme Court from reconsidering Yates' case, resorts to dictionary definitions of "tangible" and "object" to defend the arrest and conviction.
"If relevant to a court proceeding, a fish would plainly be discoverable as a 'tangible object,'" the brief submitted by the solicitor general's office says.
But Yates says the context of the law clearly has documents in mind, not dinner. Although even a victory at the Supreme Court won't clear him of lesser charges, the federal defender representing him, John Badalamenti, says Yates' "view is that it will never happen to someone else again."
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in a brief urging the high court to take the case, says cases like Yates' place "a growing burden on the administration of justice - often resulting in ludicrous federal convictions for offenses better resolved with civil penalties."
William Shepherd, a lawyer for the group, said the court apparently "wants to be part of this bigger debate" about overcriminalization that has united both parties in Congress. "The issue is much bigger than the case," he said.
Shepherd told a congressional panel last year: "My guess would be that Congress had no idea that a post-Enron, anti-document-shredding statute would be used to convict a man of destroying three red grouper."
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