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Is a fish a tangible object? Is overboard overbroad?

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This morning the U.S. Supreme Court took up the "anti-shredding" case, Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451.  No, this has nothing to do with guitars or snowboards.  It has to do with fish and broad federal statutes. 

The Eleventh Circuit opinion is here.  The court recites the facts roughly as follows.  Yates is a commercial fisherman who was cited by an inspector for having grouper smaller than the legal limit.  The inspector separated the undersized fish and directed Yates not to disturb them until he returned to port.  Instead he had the crew throw them overboard.

Part of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, 18 U.S.C. ยง1519, says:

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in 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 or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
As a matter of policy, it's easy to sympathize with Mr. Yates.  SarbOx is supposed to be about financial matters, not fish.  As a matter of statutory interpretation and the duty of courts to enforce the law as written, I'm afraid the fisherman will get skunked.  Of course a fish is a "tangible object."  You would have to twist the words beyond recognition to get a different result.  Yes, this law is far broader than needed to achieve the policy objective behind it, but this is the law Congress enacted, and this is what it says.

Jonathan Adler has this post at the Volokh Conspiracy.

1 Comment

I have to assume that Mr. Yates was facing a rather large fine for his fishing infractions, as that would explain his motive for his actions. I don't think he would have tossed the fish if it was $50 an undersized grouper.

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