(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)
CORTEZ – After his case ambled its way to the U.S. Supreme Court last November, John Yates said he tried to push the matter out of his mind. The 62-year-old Holmes Beach resident continued with daily life, but remained hopeful the nation’s highest court would rule in his favor.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-to-4 to overturn the conviction of the former Cortez fisherman charged with disposing of undersized fish after Florida Wildlife Commission officials instructed him otherwise.
Yates, then-captain of the Miss Katie, and two crew members were longline fishing for grouper in August 2007 in the Gulf of Mexico. An officer with the FWC boarded the vessel and started measuring the grouper on board, which have to be a minimum of 20 inches long.
Of 3,000 pounds of fish on board, 72 fish were below the minimum length, the FWC officer said. He instructed Yates to hold on to the undersized fish, but when the officer returned four days later he counted only 69 fish.
Yates told the Herald in November he wasn’t sure how the number of undersized fish went from 72 to 69. He said he suspects foul play by the FWC officer.
Federal prosecutors charged Yates under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was enacted as a reaction to several financial crimes, including the Enron accounting scandal when documents were shredded to conceal wrongdoing.
One of the law’s provisions prohibits destruction of “any record, document or tangible object” to obstruct an investigation.
A federal jury convicted Yates of disposing of the undersized fish and destroying fish to obstruct a federal investigation. He served 30 days in jail and said he was blackballed from the fishing industry as a result.
After the ruling, Yates sat inside his Cortez furnishing store, Off the Hook, which he runs with his wife, Sandy Yates. His business phone had been ringing all day with calls from eager reporters, he said. Yates didn’t mind because the gloomy weather didn’t permit him to do his usual furniture painting outside. For him, it was a good day to talk.
“I feel pretty good that it’s over with, but it hasn’t really sunk in,” he said. “I lost a lot of wages since I haven’t been able to fish.”
Yates said the conviction was a good thing, too.
“It’s going to help a lot of people along the way, especially the fishing world, you know, ’cause I don’t think they’re going to have to deal with the same thing that I did,” he said.
Sandy Yates, who was at the Supreme Court last fall when the case was argued, said she was happy with the news.
“I would love to have had a 9-0 but 5-4 works. I’m content with that,” the 58-year-old told the Herald. “It’s been a long time coming, there’s no doubt.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the main opinion fish did not constitute a “tangible object” under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
Though split, five justices agreed a law written to protect investors by banning the destruction of corporate evidence did not apply to Yates’ actions.
“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,” Ginsburg wrote. “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.”
Instead, Ginsburg wrote on behalf of herself and three other justices, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act targets only the destruction of tangible objects “used to record or preserve information.”
Ginsburg was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion, noting the case “can and should be resolved on narrow grounds.”
In announcing her opinion from the bench, Ginsburg used more colorful language.
“Fish one may fry,” she said, “but may one falsify, or make a false entry in the sea-dwelling creatures?”
Alito added when one hears the term “tangible object … a fish does not spring to mind — nor does an antelope, a colonial farmhouse, a hydrofoil or an oil derrick.”
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissenting opinion for herself and three other justices — Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
She wrote the real issue in the case was the law is too harsh. It is, she wrote, “too broad and undifferentiated, with too-high maximum penalties, which give prosecutors too much leverage and sentencers too much discretion.”
Yates said he was thinking about hiring an attorney to see if he can recover lost wages.
“I think my fishing days is over, which I wish it wasn’t,” he said. “I’d get back in a boat today if I could, but there’s probably no way I can do that.”
— Herald online reporter Kate Irby contributed to this story. Material from the Herald’s Washington Bureau and the New York Times was also included.