I Once Caught a Fish Thiiiiis…Small?


Each term, thousands of individuals file in forma pauperis petitions in the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that the court review their cases without having to pay the $300 filing fee.

Most of these petitions are from criminal defendants challenging their convictions, and each term the court agrees to hear a handful of these cases, often involving weighty constitutional issues, such as Fourth Amendment searches, Fifth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel claims, or questions of cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Today the Supreme Court agreed to hear an IFP case, but the subject matter of this one is, well…fishy.

In 2007, defendant John Yates's commercial fishing boat—the Miss Katie—was boarded by Officer Jones of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Was Yates smuggling illegal drugs or running an illegal off-shore gambling operation? No, he was cited for harvesting grouper that were less than 20 inches long.

Even though Officer Jones separated the offending fish and told Yates to turn them over to the Fisheries Service when he got back to port, Yates tossed the tiny fish back and replaced them with slightly larger ones.

That caught Yates a 30-day jail sentence and 36 months of supervised release.

But Yates thinks that stinks more than Miss Katie.

That's because he was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. §1519, an anti-shredding provision in Sarbanes-Oxley passed in the wake of the Enron scandal that makes it a crime to knowingly destroy or conceal "any record, document, or tangible object" with the intent to obstruct a government investigation.

[Editor's note: To avoid any confusion, we want to make it clear that Yates was not accused of shredding any fish—in tacos or otherwise.]

Yates argues that Section 1519 only applies to records, documents, or tangible items that relate to recordkeeping—not to fish.

While the U.S. Court for the Eleventh Circuit easily dispensed with that argument—concluding that fish do quality as "tangible objects"—the Supreme Court thinks it needs to dive in for a closer look.

So for those of you waiting with "baited" breath to hear whether a fish is a "tangible thing," the Supreme Court will hear Yates v. United States next term.