Sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court addresses questions of law that are of monumental significance on their face, such as when a criminal suspect must be informed of his or her legal rights upon arrest or whether abortion is a constitutionally protected right. On other occasions, however, the importance of a Court decision is not as readily apparent, and sometimes the subject of the case can — on first examination — seem unimportant or even trivial.

Consider, for example, the case that the Court decided last February — Yates v. United States — in which the topic of discussion appears to have been, at least in part, whether a fish is a “document.”

The underlying facts involved a fisherman who was accused of having caught undersize fish. The inspector who made this claim counted 72 such undersize specimens on the fisherman’s boat, but when the boat made it back to shore for the fish to be measured, the count was only 69: the fisherman had evidently told a crewmember to throw undersize fish back overboard.

This apparent discrepancy of three fish eventually led to the fisherman being accused of a violation of the Sarbanes Oxley Act — a law that federal prosecutors use to pursue and punish corporations and individuals of accounting fraud. Specifically, the law makes it a federal crime to falsify, cover up, alter or destroy a record or document with the purpose of obstructing a federal investigation. Conviction can lead to imprisonment for up to 20 years.

The fisherman — John Yates — argued at trial that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was intended to apply to media meant to store information, like documents or computer hard drives, and did not apply to an object like a fish. The jury disagreed, and convicted him. On appeal to a federal court of appeals, the appeals court agreed with the jury: effectively, a fish can be a “tangible object” under Sarbanes-Oxley, subject to the same legal accounting protections that arose from the practices that led to the collapse of Enron Corporation.

The Supreme Court took the case for review to answer the question of how literally the law’s term, “tangible object” should be applied, particularly with regard to what kinds of evidence destruction or tampering that Sarbanes-Oxley applies to.

The decision was close: of the nine Supreme Court justices, four agreed with the trial court and the court of appeals: “tangible objects” should be read literally, so the disposal of allegedly undersize fish in Yates case was tantamount to disposing of evidence to obstruct a federal investigation. Four justices disagreed, and sided with Yates’ interpretation; the ninth justice concurred with their opinion, meaning that the case has to be sent back to the trial court.

The real significance of the case, though, is that for the first time the Court referred to “overcriminalization” in the body of one of its opinions. That is, the prosecution’s attempt to prosecute Yates was possibly too aggressive and relied on stretching the law’s definition, threatening Yates with a potentially disproportionate punishment given the nature of his claimed offense.

Overcriminalization has been a complaint of some in the legal defense community who are concerned with both federal and state prosecutions that may be overzealous, and criminal laws that are written too broadly. For the U.S. Supreme Court to use the term for the first time suggests that the arguments of these individuals may finally be making some headway in the judicial system.

The Attorneys at the Hunsucker Legal Group are here to assist you if you or a loved one has been charged with an Oklahoma criminal case. For a free consultation, please contact us at 405-231-5600.