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Fishy business at the Supreme Court: Florida Capt. John Yates’ sad saga

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Fishy business at the Supreme Court: Florida Capt. John Yates’ sad saga

A federal employee who destroys documents to obstruct an investigation, conduct clearly covered by SOX, is reassigned, while a taxpayer who orders fish thrown overboard is imprisoned.

Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether a Florida fisherman, alleged to have thrown undersized fish overboard, was properly convicted under a law passed to stop the crimes committed by the corrupt executives who brought down Enron.

In 2007, Captain John Yates was fishing off the coast of Florida when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), whose officers were deputized as federal agents by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), inspected his boat. These agents claimed that Yates had caught undersized fish and instructed him to return to shore for inspection. Before the boat reached shore, Yates allegedly told his crew to throw some of the fish overboard, an act that typically results in a $500 fine or temporary license suspension.

Nearly three years after the fact, federal prosecutors charged Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX)—the sweeping legislation passed after Enron’s collapse to crack down on securities and accounting fraud. The federal government argued that throwing fish overboard was “shredding” of “tangible evidence.” “Shredding” is a severe crime under SOX, carrying a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

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