U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Holmes Beach Fisherman's Case

Oct 24, 2014

Credit NOAA Ocean Explorer/Flickr

 The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case next month involving a Holmes Beach fisherman.

In 2011, John Yates was found guilty of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

Part of the act deals with knowingly destroying or altering documents. It was crafted in 2002 after the accounting firm Arthur Anderson and Enron allegedly destroyed documents that have may have been relevant to that investigation.

But it wasn’t paper documents or emails prosecutors said were allegedly destroyed in Yate’s case. It was fish.

And now the United States Supreme Court will decide if Yates’ charge falls under the intent and language of the act. Yates said prosecutors interpreted the word “tangible object” in the act to include fish.

“The law I’m charged with is destroying evidence or anything that holds or keeps a record into a tangible object and what this prosecutor hung his hat on was tangible object; that a fish is a tangible object, which it is. But, you can’t make a false entry into a fish or store anything into it,” he said.

The Supreme Court will debate the context of “tangible object” and whether it’s meant to mean an object to store data like a computer or server.

Ellen Podgor is a law professor at Stetson University. She believes lawmakers did not have fish on the mind when they wrote the act.

“The fact that the title says destruction, alteration or falsification of records is very clear that – and that the fact that this was part of Sarbanes-Oxley – shows us that Congress’ intent when they passed the statute was that they wanted to stop individuals who are destroying documents or destroying records of some type during a federal investigation,” she said.

The Yates case dates back to 2007. On an August day, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer who had been cross-deputized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA boarded Yates’ boat.

The officer measured what Yates said were 3,000 pounds of red grouper. The officer said he found 72 fish below the legal size requirement. When Yates docked days later, an officer re-measured the fish and this time, found 69 fish that were too small.

Court documents show prosecutors argued those three missing fish were part of a plan by Yates to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them.

Yates said the fish were kept in ice and unpacked into the summer sun when first counted, where they thawed out. Court documents show the defense argued Yates did not have enough ice to properly repackage the fish.

“If you catch a fish and you stick him in an ice hole for four to five, six days he’s going to shrink,” he said.

They also contest the manner in which the officer measured the fish.

Yates served 30 days in prison in 2011. He said he has been unable to leave the Sarasota County region for about five years since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a federal crime.

A representative with NOAA said most cases involving size requirement violations are civil cases, but that can change on a case by case basis.

The US Supreme Court will hear Yates’ case Nov. 5.