Yates v. United States

Florida commercial fishing industry, meet the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear three cases from Florida in its current term, two of which involve commercial fishing.

In the most recently granted case, the state of Florida is set to do battle with the state of Georgia, in a dispute over Georgia’s consumption of water from two rivers that flow south through Georgia before converging and flowing through northwest Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. On November 3, 2014, the Supreme Court granted Florida’s motion for leave to file its complaint against Georgia, which is tantamount to the Supreme Court agreeing to hear the case. I will preview that case in my next post.  

This post focuses on a second case from Florida involving commercial fishing, Yates v. United States, which has been on the Supreme Court’s docket since late April. Oral argument has been set for today, November 5, 2014. While affecting fewer Floridians, the case has drawn participation from a host of amici curiae (literally, “friends of the court,” parties not directly involved with the case that want to weigh in to assist the Court in reaching its decision), indicating that it is seen as having the potential to have significant legal consequences.

Is Throwing Fish Overboard a Federal Crime?  

In Yates, the Supreme Court is reviewing the Eleventh Circuit’s interpretation of a federal statute that, at first blush, would seem to have nothing to do with commercial fishing. But the 11th Circuit concluded that it is fully applicable to commercial fishermen.

The statute, 18 U.S.C. section 1519, was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal, as part of the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX). Intended to avoid a repeat of the type of fraud perpetrated by Enron on investors and employees, SOX imposed more stringent accounting and financial reporting requirements for public companies, as well as other reforms.

Section 1519 was intended to close a loophole that allowed Enron to avoid punishment for its concerted efforts to destroy evidence and thwart investigation of its fraud. Accordingly, the statute makes it a crime to destroy or conceal “any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence” a federal investigation. 

Other than federal prosecutors, few would have thought that Congress had John Yates in mind when it passed section 1519. Yates was the captain of a commercial fishing boat that was fishing for red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico in August 2007, when an FWC Officer boarded his vessel to inspect for compliance with fishing regulations. (At the time, Yates’ boat was fishing in federal waters, and the FWC officer had been deputized by the National Marine Fisheries Service.)

The FWC officer measured red grouper he suspected were shorter than 20 inches long, the minimum size then-current regulations allowed to be harvested. He found 72 undersized red grouper, issued a regulatory citation, and placed the undersized red grouper in wooden crates in the fish box on Yates’ boat, instructing Yates and his crew not to disturb them.

After returning to shore, the FWC officer measured the crated fish in the fish box, and found only 69 red grouper to be undersized, three fewer than before. He believed Yates and his crew had replaced the original fish with other fish. A member of Yates’ crew said Yates had instructed the crew to throw some undersized fish overboard.

As a result, prosecutors charged Yates with violating section 1519. Harvesting undersized fish is a civil regulatory violation, which could have subjected Yates only to paying a fine and having his fishing license suspended.

But because he had allegedly thrown undersized fish overboard, he faced criminal penalties under section 1519. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to spend 30 days in jail. Due to the conviction, he has been unable to find work as a captain.

The issue in the case before the Supreme Court is whether throwing fish overboard falls within the conduct made illegal by section 1519. More precisely, the issue is whether throwing fish overboard amounts to destroying or concealing a “tangible object” as that term is used in section 1519.

The 11th Circuit had little trouble concluding that it does. Its reasoning was simple. The Supreme Court has instructed that statutes should be interpreted according to the plain meaning of their terms. Unless the words are ambiguous, courts aren’t supposed to look to the intent behind the law. The term “tangible object” doesn’t appear to be ambiguous. And it literally means any physical object. A fish is a physical object. So the statute would seem to apply to Yates, even though Congress may not have intended it to apply to him.

There is no circuit split on the issue to resolve, which is the primary basis on which the Supreme Court generally agrees to hear cases. No other court of appeals is known to have confronted the issue whether a fish is a “tangible object” under section 1519. And the language of the statute seems clear enough.

So why would the Supreme Court take up the case? The answer may be that the case cries out for placing some limits on the doctrine of blindly applying federal criminal statutes, without any consideration of legislative intent, practical outcomes, or the appropriateness of making conduct a federal crime — at least in some circumstances.

The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Bond v. United States may provide a clue as to the Court’s thinking. In that case, the government invoked a statute dealing with chemical warfare to prosecute a woman who had tried to poison her former best friend, after discovering that she was pregnant with the woman’s husband’s child. Although the woman’s conduct fell under the literal meaning of the statute, the Supreme Court looked further. The statute’s wording may not have been ambiguous in itself, but Congressional overreach made it ambiguous in a sense:

[T]he ambiguity derives from the improbably broad reach of the key statutory definition given the term—“chemical weapon”—being defined; the deeply serious consequences of adopting such a boundless reading; and the lack of any apparent need to do so in light of the context from which the statute arose—a treaty about chemical warfare and terrorism. We conclude that, in this curious case, we can insist on a clear indication that Congress meant to reach purely local crimes, before interpreting the statute’s expansive language in a way that intrudes on the police power of the States.

Similar concerns about making it a federal crime to throw fish overboard may have motivated the Supreme Court to take up Yates. Most of the large contingent of amici curiae–including libertarian and pro-business groups, professors, criminal defense lawyers, and former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley, the Oxley in Sarbanes Oxley–urge the Court to go in a similar direction in Yates as it did in Bond. Many of the amicus briefs focus on what they call “overcriminalization” of conduct under federal law, and ask the Supreme Court to impose limits on the permissible reach of federal criminal law.

SOX seems like a good statute to use to advance that argument. It was controversial when passed, with some saying its requirements are too onerous, and it is highly disliked by Wall Street and others in the business community.   

But the question remains whether the majority of the Supreme Court will consider prosecuting a commercial fisherman under SOX a “curious” enough case to justify looking beyond the unambiguous words of the statute. If so, the bigger issue will be how the Court draws the line as to when courts may look behing the plain meaning of statutory terms when determining the scope of conduct made illegal by a federal criminal statute.