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Penalties for Spoliation of “Tangible Objects”


Sometimes three red groupers are a “tangible object”, but mostly they are just, well, uh, fish.

In the summer of 2007, boat owner and Captain, John Yates was leading a fishing trip on his boat, the “Miss Katie”.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation officer stopped the boat to inspect it. The officer determined that 72 of the 75 grouper on board met the 20 inch minimum size limit, but found three undersized and issued Yates a citation.

The conservation officer instructed Yates to return to port with the offending fish kept on board until reaching port and allowing seizure of the fish by the appropriate authorities. It does not seem that guards on the fish, armed or unarmed were posted. Yates started back to port, but threw the offending, under sized fish overboard before reaching shore.

The conservation officer took Captain Yates into custody and charged him with violating the “Sarbanes-Oxley Act”, which relates to unlawful destruction of documents and “tangible objects. The violation is a felony and carries with it a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Key West Boat -- Picture by J. Hopkins

Picture by J. Hopkins

The disposition of the remaining 73 red grouper is still, to this day, unknown. We do know they did not appear as evidence in Captain Yates’ trial.

That was 2007. The case went through the District Court where Captain Yates was found guilty of “record destruction” and he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. The case was appealed to the 11th Circuit where the justices affirmed the verdict; finding that the red grouper were, in fact, “tangible objects.

The case was argued before the US Supreme Court yesterday.

Defense lawyers argued that the government was using the “anti-shredding portions of the Sarbane-Oxley law to categorize the red grouper as “tangible objects”; because the law was intended to refer only to “records, documents and devices designed to preserve information”.

When prosecutors gave their argument, Judge Alito asked, “Do you deny that this statute, as you read it, is capable of being applied to really trivial matters, and yet each of those would carry a potential penalty of 20 years? And then you go further and say that it is the policy of the Justice Department that this has to be applied in every one of those crazy little cases.”

Chief Justice Roberts expressed his feelings about the case when he said, “You make him (Captain Yates) sound like a mob boss or something.”

On the serious side.

John Yates’ life has been significantly damaged. He served the 30 days in prison and was placed on (3) years of probation that prohibits him from leaving the middle district of Florida. He has lost his fishing business and “hundreds of thousands of dollars in income for a minor infraction”.

Captain Yates version:

  • The officers dragged out 72 fish from approximately 3000 total he had on board;
  • While dragging the fish out, the heads of the fish were banged into the side of the ship and “smashed in” making them shorter than they were in the water;
  • One year after Yates was arrested; the minimum length for the fish was reduced from 20 inches to 18 inches;
  • At the time the officers stacked the fish on the deck, they did not take custody of them, although they had every opportunity and waited until the next day to come back and discover the missing fish.

It just seems as if the Fish & Wildlife Officers might have found a middle ground in this case. Possible a harsh chastisement, a reasonable period of keeping their eye on Captain Yates in the future; and sautéing the red grouper for lunch at Captain Yates place.

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Posted By: Bud Wilder