Jun 20, 2014 - 11:45am

Making a Federal Case Out of Three Small Fish?

Why are federal prosecutors using the Sarbanes-Oxley law, a corporate governance law passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, to target a Florida fisherman over three missing fish?

It’s certainly a question that Florida fisherman John Yates would have liked answered before he faced a potential 20 years in jail as a result of these prosecutors’ efforts.

In 2007, Yates and his crew were operating off the Gulf of Mexico when his boat was boarded by officers with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Those officers reportedly discovered 72 undersized red grouper, instructed the crew to head back to port so the agents could seize the catch.

Upon arriving at the port, however, a government inspector counted only 69 fish that were undersized. At the time, Yates claimed the officers had simply originally miscounted.

CNN reports, however, that prosecutors alleged the fisherman ordered his crew to throw the smaller fish overboard and have “charged him with destruction of evidence to impede a federal investigation.”

The Wall Street Journal details what happened next:

Prosecutors later brought multiple criminal charges against Mr. Yates, in part by using a Sarbanes-Oxley provision that makes it a crime to knowingly destroy “any record, document or tangible object” with the intent to impede an investigation. A jury convicted the fisherman on two counts. A judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail and three years of supervision after his release.

Yates appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court that the Sarbanes-Oxley law was not intended to apply to “non-informational” items like fish, and “said in court papers that prosecutors added the Sarbanes-Oxley charge because it offered the prospect of more severe punishment.”

His lawyer noted the stress of this situation because Yates could have faced a maximum 20-year prison sentence under the law.

An appeals court has upheld Yates’ original punishment, and Yates has now appealed to the Supreme Court, which is will consider the case in its fall term — over the objections of the U.S. Justice Department.

In the meantime, Politico reports that Yates said, “owners of fishing boats refuse to hire him because they fear his presence on their boats would lead to more trouble with the federal government.”

“I am now unable to make a living doing what I love to do,” said Yates.

What do you think: Are the federal prosecutors on target, or this a case of overcriminalization?

Crossposted from the Institute for Legal Reform's Faces of Lawsuit Abuse project.

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