WASHINGTON — Not even Supreme Court justices can resist a good fish story.
The court said Monday it will hear the case of a Florida fisherman charged with destroying evidence — three small grouper — under a federal law originally aimed at the accounting industry.
Commercial fishing boat captain John Yates argues that the federal government used its mighty power to convict him of tossing overboard three fish that were under the 20-inch minimum legal size for red grouper caught in the Gulf of Mexico.
Yates was prosecuted under part of the law Congress passed in 2002 in response to the Enron scandal and abuses in the accounting industry. He said the law's anti-shredding provision is intended to prevent the destruction of financial records. The Obama administration said the law plainly prohibits the destruction of "tangible objects," including fish.
The tale begins in 2007 on board the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing boat out of Cortez, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico.
A Florida fish and wildlife officer boarded the Miss Katie in the Gulf for a routine inspection, according to court documents. The officer noticed several fish that appeared to be too small and eventually counted 72 red grouper that were under 20 inches long. He ordered those fish to be set aside so that authorities could seize them when the boat returned to port.
Four days later, after a federal inspector got involved in the case, the same Florida officer measured the fish again and this time counted only 69 that were too small. The officer suspected that the undersized fish he looked at in port were not the same ones he measured at sea.
A member of the boat's crew was questioned by federal agents and eventually said Yates ordered the undersized fish to be thrown overboard, according to a federal appeals court opinion. A jury convicted Yates of getting rid of the undersize fish and a judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail. The federal appeals court based in Atlanta upheld the conviction.
Yates disputed that any fish were too small, but the Supreme Court case turns only on the use of the federal law against him.
He said owners of fishing boats refuse to hire him because they fear his presence on their boats would lead to more trouble with the federal government. "I am now unable to make a living doing what I love to do," he said in article he wrote for Politico.
Yates said he can't believe that a fisherman could be ensnared by a law intended to stop the white-collar crime of destroying evidence to frustrate an investigation.
Something smells rotten in his story, he said, and it isn't the fish.
Yates v. U.S., 13-7451, will be argued in the fall.