In August 2007, John Yates was fishing for red grouper in the Gulf of Mexico when an officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission boarded his vessel for a random inspection. The officer determined 72 of the estimated 3,000 fish on board were under the then 20-inch limit, set them aside in a crate on ice and ordered Yates to bring them to shore. Yates returned with 69 fish, and a crew member later told authorities that Yates had told him to throw the small fish overboard and replace them with properly sized ones. (Yates has disputed the charge, citing incorrect measurement methods and a miscounting of fish.)
Then, prosecutors threw the book at Yates. Instead of a civil penalty for the offense, Yates was charged under federal law of destroying evidence. Under that law he faced a fine and up to 20 years imprisonment if he "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, obstruct, or influence" a federal investigation.
To understand the charges, you need to look back more than a dozen years. Remember Enron? This law was implemented in the wake of that company's 2001 financial meltdown that occurred after the company had been misstating income and equity by the billions, and for years, causing the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Thousands of investors lost billions of dollars; many of them were employees of the energy firm and also lost their jobs. Enron's accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, was convicted of criminal destruction of evidence, for shredding thousands of documents — by the truckload. Yates was charged with a similar crime for throwing over fish.
So essentially, a blue-collar guy was charged with a white-collar crime. Why is it never the other way around?
Yates was convicted and served 30 days in jail, but he continued to fight the federal charge, and this week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided 5–4 in Yates' favor. The court ruled that fish did not fall under the definition of a "tangible object" in the law's language since it was intended to prohibit corporate document shredding and because fish are unlike the records and documents that were specified in the destruction of evidence statute. (Yates did not fight a lesser conviction for removing property to prevent seizure.)
During oral arguments in November, Justice Antonin Scalia also reprimanded the prosecutors for excessive prosecution, which was reported in a story by Slate magazine: "This captain is throwing a fish overboard. He could have gotten 20 years. What kind of a sensible prosecution is that? ... Who do you have out there that exercises prosecutorial discretion? ... What kind of a mad prosecutor would try to send this guy up for 20 years?"
Yates won an important legal victory, but it's also bittersweet. In an interview with the Bradenton Herald (in the video above), Yates, now 62, says the conviction destroyed his fishing career. "It forced me into early retirement so now I'm drawing social security ... Right now the fishermen are probably making $110,000– $120,000 a year. There's nobody that's going to give up a seat for me to jump in there right now. I think my fishing days is over, and I wish it wasn't. I'd get back in a boat today if I could."