94ºF

Justices side with Florida man in case of missing fish

photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a case that drew a Dr. Seuss reference from one justice, a divided U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a conviction of a Florida commercial fisherman who ordered a crew member to toss undersized red snapper overboard after being nabbed by game officers.

The court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed the conviction of John L. Yates, who had been charged under a federal law passed by Congress after cover-ups in the Enron financial scandal.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer boarded Yates' boat in the Gulf of Mexico in 2007 and found undersized red snapper. Four days later, the catch was examined again after the boat was docked in Cortez, and officers discovered that some fish were missing.

A member of Yates' crew said he had been instructed to throw fish overboard.

Yates was convicted under a law that, in part, bars destroying, concealing or covering up a "tangible object" with the intent to block an investigation, according to Wednesday's ruling.

An opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by three other justices said the law should not apply to the Yates case.

"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,'' she 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."

Ginsburg was joined in the opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Samuel Alito also backed Yates in a concurring opinion.

But justices Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissented, with Kagan writing an opinion that cited the children's author Dr. Seuss.

"A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form,'' Kagan wrote. "See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960)."

The dissenters said the Supreme Court needed to follow what they saw as clear language in the law.

"All the words surrounding 'tangible object' show that Congress meant the term to have a wide range,'' Kagan wrote. "That fits with Congress' evident purpose in enacting (the law): to punish those who alter or destroy physical evidence -- any physical evidence -- with the intent of thwarting federal law enforcement."