Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Fishy SOX Case

18 U.S.C. § 1519, known as the “anti-shredding provision” of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation (emphasis added).  Congress passed this statute in the aftermath of the Enron debacle.  But did they ever envision that a prosecutor would use this statute against a commercial fisherman for allegedly having undersized grouper fish that were thrown overboard following the issuing of a civil fishing citation from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission? 

The government’s extension of this SOX statute is the subject of a Petition for Certiorari (Download Yates Pcert_Filed) before the Supreme Court. A key issue is whether “fish” are tangible objects for the purposes of this statute. And even more bizarre is that the fisherman allegedly started with 72 undersized red grouper and when he came to shore there were purportedly only 69 fish.  Could this be a federal prosecution under SOX for 3 missing fish? And is this all happening during a time of sequestration with tight funding?

Perhaps the Supreme Court will agree that in the ocean of crime, this one is a bit fishy.  Following the filing of the Petition for Certiorari and a distribution for conference, the Court requested a response from the government. Amici filed a couple of briefs and it was again distributed for conference. It is now set for distribution a third time, April 25, 2014 (see here). It's a wonderful case for the Court to examine principles of statutory interpretation and how far afield the government can go in using a statute written and intended to stop one form of criminal conduct but being used in an unintended manner. This case also provides the Court the chance to step to the plate and express a view on overcriminalization. (see NACDL amicus brief of William Shepherd here - Download NACDLYATESAMICUS).  There are many other issues in the "fish case" that may also interest the Court, such as how a civil fishing citation became a criminal case with an indictment issued 985 days after the citation. (see Petitioner's Reply Brief - Download Yates Reply to Brief in Opposition). But the real question is whether the Court will order fish this coming Friday at their conference.   

 (esp)

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