The Supreme Court today ruled that John Yates, a commercial fisherman, could not be prosecuted under a financial-fraud law [18 USC §1519] for catching undersized red grouper. Cause of Action, together with the Southeastern Legal Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, filed a brief in support of Mr. Yates arguing that upholding the conviction would mean a potential twenty year federal prison sentence for anyone who conceals evidence of a surfboard being used on a beach designated for swimming, throws away a bag of chips from a workplace restroom prior to an OSHA inspection, or discards an empty container of medicine purchased from a foreign pharmacy.
CoA and the other amici also noted that Captain Yates’ case raises troubling questions about the government’s inconsistent application of the law, given the multiple cases of document destruction by federal officials. For example, in 2011, during the course of an Inspector General investigation into NOAA’s Office of Enforcement, then director Dale J. Jones, Jr., actually shredded documents to conceal evidence. Jones was not prosecuted—instead, he was given a different job. Similarly, Charles Edwards, former Department of Homeland Security Acting Inspector General, allegedly destroyed documents to impede a federal investigation. Edwards, too, was reassigned to another federal job.
According to Justice Ginsburg: “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. But it would cut [the law] 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…Congress trained its attention on corporate and accounting deception and cover-ups, we conclude that a matching construction…is in order: A tangible object….we hold, must be one used to record or preserve information.” Even the dissent, filed by Justice Kagan, noted: “That brings to the surface the real issue: overcriminalization and excessive punishment in the U. S. Code… [§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. And I’d go further: In those ways, §1519 is unfortunately not an outlier, but an emblem of a deeper pathology in the federal criminal code.”
Cause of Action Executive Director Dan Epstein applauded the decision:
“We are gratified by the Court’s decision. The Supreme Court has today protected individual rights against arbitrary government prosecutions. The government’s conduct in this case was quintessential Executive Branch overreach because Congress never imagined, much less intended, that the law it passed to deter corporate financial scandals would be applied to fish. Further, this case stands for the principle that overzealous prosecutions should not be broadly applied to private citizens while taxpayer-funded government officials engage in unremediated violations. The rule in this case, requiring courts to read statutes in context and in the fashion Congress intended, will help numerous individuals stand up to government abuses of its authority.”
A copy of the Supreme Court’s decision can be found here. A copy of the Cause of Action, Southeastern Legal Foundation and Texas Public Policy Foundation amicus brief can be found here. Gus Coldebella of Goodwin Proctor was counsel of record for amici on this case.