The 'Overcriminalization' of John Yate's 3 shredded groupers

Something Fishy in Sarbox Land - How many groupers does it take to expose federal overreach and a flawed law gone wrong again?


On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing argument in Yates v. United States. Since the case turns in part on the fate of missing fish, the court’s decision to take it up has been easily mocked in some quarters. But there’s nothing frivolous about this dispute. Fisherman John Yates, accused of hiding some of his catch from officials, has been charged with violating the Sarbanes-Oxley financial reform act and could have spent 20 years in prison. Yates presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to slow down the overcriminalization of America. The ordeal of Mr. Yates began in 2007 on his commercial fishing boat, the Miss Katie, in the Gulf of Mexico. During a routine stop at sea to measure the size of his catch of several thousand fish, fish-and-game officials counted 72 alleged undersized grouper. Three days later, a count by agents at the dock found only 69 grouper. Mr. Yates was eventually charged under the anti-shredding statute of Sarbanes-Oxley. Specifically, the Justice Department claimed that Mr. Yates had knowingly “altered, destroyed, mutilated, concealed, covered up, falsified, or made a false entry in a record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation.”
Post-Enron Law Snags Fisherman - Supreme Court to consider whether case represents 'overcriminalization.'


A Gulf Coast fisherman, caught in the wide net cast by a post-Enron financial fraud law, will ask the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 5 to reverse his conviction for destroying undersized red grouper. The facts of John Yates' case read like either a tale of the one that got away or of prosecutors run amok. But underlying Yates v. United States is a purported "overcriminalization epidemic" that has united the nation's business community with the criminal defense bar against the federal government and a tool designed to prevent the destruction of evidence. "It's an issue that brings people together from all walks of the political spectrum," said William Shepherd of Holland & Knight, who filed an amicus brief for the criminal defenders. "John Yates got caught up in it, but it could just as easily have been your cousin or your mom." Overcriminalization at the federal level is "definitely a problem," said Kevin Walsh of the University of Richmond School of Law. "But it's also a problem to have the judiciary giving artificially narrow constructions to deliberately broad provisions, especially when they relate to evidence destruction." The story began on a summer day on the Gulf of Mexico, with Yates' boat, the Miss Katie, six days into the commercial harvest of red grouper. A federally deputized state fish and wildlife conservation officer boarded for a routine inspection. Federal law requires harvested red grouper to be at least 20 inches in length. The officer found 72 grouper measuring between 18 3/4 and 19 3/4 inches. He issued a civil citation for harvesting undersized fish and ordered that they be separated so that they could be destroyed when the boat returned to dock. Two days later, the boat docked and an inspector remeasured the fish. After finding discrepancies in the count and the measurements, he suspected they were not the same fish he had set aside at sea. A crew member later told federal agents the captain had directed the crew to throw the original undersized fish overboard and to catch others — apparently also undersized — to replace them.
Comment: Too many laws! Too much Federal reach! See You Commit Three Felonies a Day. Image source. Screenshot from 2nd article and the fish in question.


  1. From 3 felonies article: "Under the English common law we inherited, a crime requires intent. This protection is disappearing in the U.S."

    Reminds me of the charge against me 3 years ago - "intent to evade taxes". See arrested

  2. Update: Supreme Court Objects to Application of Sarbanes-Oxley on Commercial Fisherman:

    The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared ready to throw federal prosecutors overboard for applying the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance law to a commercial-fisherman accused of destroying evidence that he harvested undersized fish.

    “He could have gotten 20 years!” Justice Antonin Scalia said of the maximum jail term the fisherman faced for tossing undersized red grouper off his boat. “What kind of a sensible prosecution is that?”

    “Perhaps Congress should have called this the Sarbanes-Oxley Grouper Act,” Justice Anthony Kennedy quipped during an hourlong oral argument.


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