DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We are reporting on big changes in the U.S. Congress after last night's election. Let's move across the street from the Capitol to another branch of government - the U.S. Supreme Court, which is grappling with a case about fish. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Commercial fisherman John Yates and his crew were fishing for grouper in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico when Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer John Jones boarded the boat. Jones, suspecting that the fishermen were keeping fish smaller than the 20-inch minimum, measured some of the catch and found 72 grouper that were undersized. As fisherman Yates tells the story...
JOHN YATES: So he writes me a citation for short fish. It's like a speeding ticket.
TOTENBERG: When the boat got to shore, investigators determined that the fish in the crate were not the same ones that had been measured.
YATES: Three years later all of a sudden they come to my door, with bulletproof vests and guns. They put me in handcuffs. They take me to jail.
TOTENBERG: The government tells a very different story. Speaking at a public event, Solicitor General Don Verrilli said the state inspector put the undersized fish in a crate and instructed Captain Yates to bring the box back to shore where he would be met by federal authorities.
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DON VERRILLI: What the commercial fisherman did after the state inspector left was to instruct one of his employees to take that crate of fish and dump it overboard and replace it with fish that were no longer undersized.
VERRILLI: And the employee did that and then he got back to shore, and he ratted out his boss.
TOTENBERG: Yates was convicted of destroying evidence to impede a federal investigation and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court contending that the law used to prosecute him was meant to apply to documents and records and not fish. He has a small army of supporters, particularly in the business community. In fact the law used to prosecute Yates was enacted by Congress in the wake of the Enron scandal and abuses in the accounting industry. The federal government, however, contends it was clearly written and intended to be a broad, anti-obstruction of justice law that would fill gaps in the criminal code that had long existed.
The law makes it a crime to destroy, alter or cover up any record, document or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct the investigation of any matter within federal jurisdiction. The government looks at that language and says the plain meaning of the words is to cover more than just financial records. For more than a decade it's used the law to prosecute everything from terrorism to environmental safety laws using as evidence the destruction of tangible objects such as human bodies, bloodstains, guns, drugs, cash and automobiles. Most recently the statute was used to win the conviction of a Boston man for helping the accused Boston Marathon bomber conceal physical evidence. But fisherman Yates, represented by assistant public defender John Badalementi, maintains that the government's argument is a huge overreach.
JOHN BADALEMENTI: This statute does not cover the destruction of anything but records or documents.
TOTENBERG: Indeed he notes the title of this section of the law is Destruction and Alteration of Records. And the purpose of the law was to prevent and punish obstruction in the financial industry.
BADALEMENTI: I would not dispute that anything can be a tangible object under the broadest dictionary definition, but they have to be read within the context of all the words that Congress legislated.
TOTENBERG: Supporting this argument and opposing the government's position is a phalanx of business organizations as well as defense and civil liberties lawyers. They contend that if the court upholds the government's broad reading of statute, it would give prosecutors the power to seek penalties of up to 20 years in prison if an individual destroys any object, no matter how trivial, with the intent of obstructing a federal investigation. The government replies that the records-only argument would make it a crime for a murderer to destroy his victim's diary, but not the murder weapon. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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