By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court threw overboard on Wednesday a Florida fisherman’s conviction under an evidence-tampering provision of a federal white collar crime law for disposing of undersized red grouper fish while he was under investigation.
On a 5-4 vote, the court said fisherman John Yates’ actions were not the type of conduct covered by the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed by Congress to guard against corporate fraud of the sort committed by companies including Enron Corp and WorldCom Inc.
Yates was convicted in 2011 on two of three charges, including one under the so-called anti-shredding provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley law.
The provision penalizes the destruction or concealment of "a tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct or influence" a government investigation.
There was not a clear majority on the legal reasoning in the high court's ruling. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on behalf of herself and three colleagues that a “tangible object” should be defined as something that is used to record or preserve information, "not all objects in the physical world."
Justice Samuel Alito, who provided the decisive fifth vote, said the term was intended to describe file-keeping.
Prosecutors in Florida accused Yates of illegally destroying the evidence showing he had harvested red grouper fish that were smaller than the minimum 20 inches (51 cm) in length required under federal regulations. Yates, who lives in Holmes Beach, 32 miles (51 km) south of Tampa, was not able get work as a fisherman following his trial, his lawyers said.
Yates’ conviction for one count of preventing the government from taking custody of the fish will remain intact.
The case began in August 2007 when federal and state officials measured fish on Yates's commercial fishing boat, named the Miss Katie, that they suspected were undersized.
At that time, 72 were found to be under 20 inches, with some as short as 18 to 19 inches (45 to 48 cm). After the boat returned to port, agents re-measured the fish. Only 69 were undersized, and they were all closer to the 20-inch mark.
A crew member later testified at trial that Yates had told crew members to throw the undersized fish overboard and replace them with others. In August 2013, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, finding in part that a fish fit within the definition of a "tangible object." The Supreme Court reversed that decision.
The case is United States v. Yates, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-7451.
(This version of the story was refiled to fix day in lead)
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)