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Fisherman’s Conviction Reversed by High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed one of two convictions against a Florida man who harvested undersized red grouper in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

A federal jury had found John Yates guilty of knowingly disposing of undersized fish to prevent the government from taking lawful custody and control of them, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2232(a); and destroying or concealing a "tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence" the government's investigation into harvesting undersized grouper, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519.

After the 11th Circuit affirmed those convictions, which carried a 30-days prison sentence, the Supreme Court agreed last year to review only the § 1519 conviction,

The reversal split the court 5-4 on Wednesday, with the majority taking issue the statute's use of the words "tangible object."

Pointing to the statute's roots, the 20-page opinion notes that Section 1519 was enacted as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, "legislation designed to protect investors and restore trust in financial markets following the collapse of Enron Corporation."

"A fish is no doubt an object that is tangible; fish can be seen, caught, and handled, and a catch, as this case illustrates, is vulnerable to destruction," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court. "But it would cut §1519 loose from its financial-fraud mooring to hold that it encompasses any and all objects, whatever their size or significance, destroyed with obstructive intent. Mindful that in Sarbanes-Oxley, Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction of §1519 is in order: A tangible object captured by §1519, we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information."

Justice Samuel Alito concurred in the judgment.

Justice Elena Kagan penned the dissent, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

"All the words surrounding 'tangible object' show that Congress meant the term to have a wide range," Kagan wrote. "That fits with Congress's evident purpose in enacting §1519: to punish those who alter or destroy physical evidence - any physical evidence - with the intent of thwarting federal law enforcement." (Emphasis in original.)

At base, the dissenting judges agreed with the majority "that §1519 is a bad law - too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion."

Kagan said she'd even "go further."

"In those ways, §1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code," the dissent concludes. "But whatever the wisdom or folly of §1519, this court does not get to rewrite the law. 'Resolution of the pros and cons of whether a statute should sweep broadly or narrowly is for Congress.' If judges disagree with Congress's choice, we are perfectly entitled to say so - in lectures, in law review articles, and even in dicta. But we are not entitled to replace the statute Congress enacted with an alternative of our own design."

On his way to trial, Yates had contended that the federally deputized field officer who reviewed the fish he caught aboard the Miss Katie in 2007 had measured the fish with their mouths closed. Yates said that, mouths open, the fish met the size limit.

He had an expert with the Gulf Fishermen's Association expert to discuss a grouper's measurement with an open mouth as opposed to a closed mouth and to discuss fish shrinkage when placed on ice.

Though Yates' expert testified that fish can shrink on ice, and that grouper measure longer with their mouths open than with their mouths closed, this witness had state and federal fishing violations that the government raised on cross-examination.

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