Fisherman Wins as U.S. Court Curbs Evidence-Destruction Law

The U.S. Supreme Court scaled back a federal law that makes the destruction of evidence a crime, saying the measure shouldn’t have been used against a Florida fisherman for tossing undersized red grouper back into the sea to avoid a citation.

Voting 5-4, the justices narrowed a provision enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act after the 2001 Enron Corp. accounting fraud. The ruling overturns John Yates’s conviction.

The ruling means the provision can be used only for record-keeping items, such as documents and computers. That’s a blow to the federal government, which has used the law to prosecute people accused of destroying bodies, guns, bloodstains, drugs, cash and automobiles.

A jury last year convicted a man under the law for helping the Boston Marathon bombers conceal physical evidence including fireworks and a jar of Vaseline.

The Obama administration argued that the provision covered all types of physical evidence and filled what had been a gap in federal law.

Writing the court’s lead opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected that reasoning, saying the law covers items “used to record or preserve information.”

“It is highly improbable that Congress would have buried a general spoliation statute covering objects of any and every kind in a provision targeting fraud in financial record-keeping,” Ginsburg wrote.

Justice Alito

Justice Samuel Alito, the fifth vote in the majority, declined to join Ginsburg’s opinion. He wrote separately to say the case should be resolved “on narrow grounds,” though his bottom line was similar to Ginsburg’s. Alito said the law’s wording “makes no sense outside of filekeeping.”

Alito said the law would still cover destruction of e-mails, something Ginsburg’s opinion didn’t directly address.

The 2002 law criminalizes the destruction of “any record, document or tangible object” for the purpose of thwarting a federal investigation or proceeding. The question for the court was whether fish qualify under that definition.

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

Writing for the group, Kagan called the provision “a bad law” that was emblematic of “overcriminalization and excessive punishment” in the U.S. criminal code.

“But we are not entitled to replace the statute Congress enacted with an alternative of our own design,” she added.

30-Day Sentence

Yates, 61, has already served his 30-day sentence. He hasn’t been able to find work as a fisherman since the conviction, according to his lawyer, John Badalamenti.

Yates was “very pleased” with the ruling, Badalamenti said. “He hopes with this favorable decision that he will be able to again find employment as a commercial fisherman.”

Yates’s troubles began in 2007, when a Florida state fish and wildlife inspector boarded his vessel, “Miss Katie,” in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The inspector measured Yates’s catch and discovered that 72 red grouper were smaller than the 20-inch minimum under federal law.

The inspector ordered Yates to return to port and bring the undersized fish with him. Yates instead told a worker to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with other, larger grouper.

Yates’s legal team told the justices that the disputed phrase was aimed at document destruction, along the lines of actions by Enron’s auditing firm, Arthur Andersen LLP. Business groups took Yates’s side, aiming to restrict the provision to data-storage devices and record-keeping items.

The case is Yates v. United States, 13-7451.

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