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Supreme Court Lets Commercial Fisherman Off the Hook

The justices tackle the meaning of "tangible object."
Image: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court.KAREN BLEIER / AFP - Getty Images file

The Supreme Court on Wednesday let a commercial fisherman off the hook, ruling that he did not violate a law against destroying evidence.

John Yates, who ran the vessel Miss Katie out of Florida, was stopped in the water by a federal inspector for catching 72 undersized red grouper off the Gulf of Mexico. The inspector told him to bring the fish to port, but instead Yates ordered a crew member to dump them overboard after the inspector left.

Yates was charged with violating a post-Enron law against destroying evidence during an investigation. The question for the court: Do fish meet the law’s definition of “any record, document or tangible object?”

No, the majority said, in a 5-4 opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Given the full context of the law, and that it was passed to deal with corporate cover-ups, the court concluded that a “tangible object” must be “one used to record or preserve information.”

The dissenters said that was nonsense. “A tangible object,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for herself and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, “is an object that is tangible.”

Thus Yates was spared a conviction under a law that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

— Pete Williams