A fisherman is in trouble for destroying evidence of undersized catch.
It’s not often that a fishing case reaches the high courts, but a Florida angler might just change that.
Commercial fisherman John Yates was fishing for grouper in federal waters when a Florida Fish and Wildlife officer found 72 undersized fish that did not reach the 20-inch minimum.
The undersized fish were placed in a crate and Yates was instructed to bring them back to shore where federal authorities would be waiting. When he arrived it was clear that the fish in the crate were not the same ones that had been measured by the officer.
One of the crew members told officials that Yates had them dump the undersized fish and replace them with legal ones. For this, Yates was convicted of destroying evidence to impede a federal investigation and sentenced to 30 days jail time.
He has appealed to the Supreme Court on the premise that the law used to convict him applies only to documents and records, not fish.
The law in question states that it is a crime to destroy, alter, or cover up any document, record, or tangible object in order to impede a federal investigation. The law was passed after the scandal that destroyed Enron and led to criminal convictions for the Arthur Anderson accounting firm.
The defense claims that since the title of that particular section of the law is “Destruction and Alteration of Records,” the statute only applies to record and documents. The federal government argues that the it is a broad anti-obstruction-of-justice law intended to fill gaps that existed in the criminal code.
Federal prosecutors have used the statue to include human bodies, drugs, guns, cash, and cars as tangible objects in cases ranging from terrorism to environmental safety violations.
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In court, Assistant Public Defender John Badalamenti called this an overreach on the part of the court.
“I would not dispute that anything can be a tangible object under the broadest dictionary definition. But they have to be read in the context of all the words that Congress legislated,” Badalamenti said.
This stance has garnered support from business organizations and civil liberties lawyers alike under the contention that if the broad reading of the statute is upheld, prosecutors will be able to seek penalties up to 20 years for the destruction of even the most trivial items with intent of obstructing an investigation.
The government responded by saying that the “records only” argument would make it a crime if, say, a murderer destroyed a victim’s personal belongings, but not apply if they tried to destroy the murder weapon.
Which way will the Supreme Court go? We will have to wait and see.