How Does Destroying Fish Compare To Shredding Documents, Legally? A Supreme Court case argued Wednesday is about obstruction of justice — and fish. The prosecution says the law used to convict its client only bars document destruction. The justices aren't so sure.


How Does Destroying Fish Compare To Shredding Documents, Legally?

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Today's Supreme Court story is about fish - fish and crime that is. The case involves a commercial fisherman convicted of obstructing justice by deep-sixing a crate of undersized fish to avoid a federal fine. The reaction from the justices - they seemed to think the law used in the prosecution stinks from the head. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2007, a Fish and Wildlife inspector in the Gulf of Mexico boarded Captain John Yates' ship and found 72 undersized grouper in the catch. He put the fish in a crate and instructed Yates to bring them to shore where the ship would be met by federal authorities. But Yates, instead, ordered the crew to dump the undersized fish overboard and substitute bigger fish. The crew ratted him out and the federal government indicted him for obstruction of justice.

JOHN YATES: They put me in handcuffs. They took me to jail.

TOTENBERG: Yates was sentenced to 30 days. He knows that the law used to convict him was passed in the wake of the Enron financial scandal and he claims it was intended to bar only destruction of documents and records - not fish. The federal government counters that the law bars not just document destruction, but also the destruction of any, quote, "tangible object" in "any" federal investigation.

In the courtroom today, defense lawyer John Badalamenti argued for the narrow interpretation. Justice Kagan - the law doesn't refer only to corporate fraud cases. It refers to any matter within federal jurisdiction. That suggests breath. Justice Ginsburg -what sense does it make to say that a murderer can be prosecuted for destroying a letter from his victim, but not for destroying the knife he uses in the murder? Lawyer Badalamenti replied that the letter is a record, the knife is not. Chief Justice Roberts - what if the knife had the defendant's name on it? Answer - no, that's just an identification, not a record covered under this law. Justice Breyer - at first blush, this statute seems far broader than any obstruction statute I've ever seen. It might be unconstitutionally vague, he suggested. Justice Scalia - why is it vague? It's just incredibly expansive. Justice Kennedy - suppose the fisherman took pictures of the fish and then destroyed both the photographs and the fish? Answer - only the photographs would be covered by the act, not the fish. Justice Kennedy - it seems very odd that you can throw away the fish without violating the act, but you can't throw away the photographs.

If the court was puzzled by the defense logic, it treated the government's broad argument with escalating fury. The idea of a maximum penalty of 20 years for destroying fish just stuck in the justices' craws. Justice Scalia - what kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years? Justice Ginsburg - does the Justice Department have guidelines to instruct U.S. attorneys on what charges to bring in various situations? Assistant Solicitor General Roman Martinez replied that the U.S. Attorney's manual advises, in general, that the prosecution should bring the most severe charge. Even though these guidelines are long-standing, the justices gawked. Chief Justice Roberts - you make the fisherman here sound like a mob boss. Answer - the prosecution was not about fish. It was about destruction of evidence. Justice Kennedy - what sentence did you recommend? We followed the sentencing guidelines, which would've been 21 to 27 months.

The judge imposed a sentence of 30 days and we did not appeal. Chief Justice Roberts - but the point is that if you have a maximum penalty of 20 years that gives prosecutors extraordinary leverage under the broadest interpretation of this law. Answer - Congress drafted the bill with a five-year maximum, but increased it to 20 years. We're operating under the law that Congress gave us. Justice Alito - you are really asking the court to swallow something that is pretty hard to swallow. What if a guy catches one undersized trout and now he sees a federal inspector coming towards him and he throws it back in the lake? Lawyer Martinez replied that the defendant in this case is not arguing for some sort of de minimus rule. He's arguing that an entire class of evidence is beyond the reach of the federal obstruction of justice statute. A decision in the case is expected later in the term. In the meantime, we will all wait with bated breath. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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