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Supreme Court Sides With Fisherman In Case Of The Missing Fish

Commercial fisherman John Yates and his crew were fishing for red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Cortez, Fla., in 2007. His vessel was boarded by John Jones, a state Fish and Wildlife officer who was working on behalf of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As NPR's Nina Totenberg reported last November: "Jones, suspecting that the fishermen were keeping fish smaller than the 20-inch minimum, measured some of the catch and found 72 grouper that were undersized."

That's 72 fish out of a catch of more than 3,000, Yates wrote last year in Politico. He was issued a civil citation from the state.

But when Yates' vessel returned to port the next day, Jones and other officials examined the entire catch and found 69 — not 72 — undersized fish.

"Nearly three years later, the federal government charged me with the destruction of evidence — yes, fish — to impede a federal investigation," Yates wrote in Politico. "I was subsequently arrested at my home. I have been blacklisted by boat owners who fear federal investigations similar to mine. I am now unable to make a living doing what I love to do."

Yates was charged with violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed after, as Nina put it, "a scandal ... destroyed energy firm Enron and resulted in criminal convictions for accounting firm Arthur Andersen."

Prosecutors said he told his crew to throw the undersized fish overboard. He was convicted of destroying evidence to impede a federal investigation and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing the law applied only to documents and records, not fish. But, as Nina noted at the time:

"The federal government, however, argues that the law was clearly written and intended to be a broad anti-obstruction-of-justice law that would fill gaps in the criminal code that had long existed."

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act makes it a crime to destroy, alter or cover up "any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to ... impede or obstruct" the investigation of "any matter within federal jurisdiction."

Today, the court narrowly agreed with Yates, and reversed judgments by lower courts.

NPR's Carrie Johnson tells our Newscast unit that the court's majority said the "government overreached by deploying the financial fraud law against a commercial fisherman. The majority said tangible objects should be read to mean documents or computer hard drives not undersized fish."

"Fish one may fry, but may one falsify, or make a false entry in the sea-dwelling creatures?" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, reading from a summary of her opinion from the bench.

She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Also in agreement was Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a separate opinion.

Justices Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

"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," Kagan said.

The case was Yates v. United States.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.