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Fisherman says feds went overboard in prosecution of illegal catch

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Mon April 28, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Florida fisherman convicted under law crafted for corporate prosecutions
  • He was caught with illegal grouper and got rid of three of them
  • Prosecutors not backing down, but Supreme Court will decide if they went too far

(CNN) -- John Yates believes when it comes to the power of the federal government, he is just a small fish caught up in a prosecution meant for corporations.

And the Supreme Court thought enough of his appeal to hear the matter later this year.

The justices agreed on Monday to take up the case in which prosecutors used a law typically applied to corporate records to convict Yates of getting rid of three illegally caught grouper.

The question is whether the law against obstructing an investigation into business practices is too vague. It was passed in the aftermath of Enron and other big scandals of that kind.

The actual legal language in dispute involves efforts to conceal, cover up, falsify, or make a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.

Yates, 61, owns the Miss Katie, a commercial fishing vessel moored near Bradenton, Florida. It was operating off the Gulf of Mexico in 2007 when she was boarded by state officers working with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

They discovered 72 undersized red grouper, and told Yates to leave the catch there, and head back to shore so agents could seize it.

When the Miss Katie arrived at port days later, a government inspector counted only 69 fish that were below the 20-inch minimum harvesting size. Yates still claims the deputy originally miscounted the fish.

Prosecutors alleged Yates had ordered his crew to throw the smaller fish overboard, and charged him with destruction of evidence to impede a federal investigation.

A jury eventually convicted the Holmes Beach man and he spent 30 days in jail.

The Justice Department said Yates does not dispute now that he "directed the destruction or concealment of the fish" but argues that the law used to prosecute him does not apply.

Yates says the conviction has hurt him economically and wonders why the government was so insistent they "have a pound flesh" by prosecuting him for what he called a simple civil infraction.

The justices will not retry the facts, but only will consider whether the law was properly applied.

A number of legal and political advocacy groups have rallied to Yates' cause, saying "misuse" of government discretion to use criminal law rather than civil law to handle a range of regulatory enforcement is hurting the justice system.

"Overreach by any branch of government steps on the rights of all Americans, whether on our country's street corners or our nation's boardrooms," said William Shepherd, representing the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which filed an amicus brief in the case. "Overreach impacts real people."

The case is Yates v. U.S. (13-7451).

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