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Florida Fisherman Tried in the Supreme Court over Sarbanes-Oxley Violation

This November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a complicated case brought against a Florida fisherman who was convicted of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This fisherman was convicted for throwing three undersized red grouper back into the Gulf of Mexico, instead of returning the fish for seizure as ordered by federal officials. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a federal white collar crime law that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison for those who are found guilty of destroying “any record, document or tangible object” in an attempt to circumvent or obstruct federal prosecution. Though the Supreme Court ultimately found in favor of the federal prosecutor and issued the defendant 30 days in jail as punishment, the Justices seem extremely concerned that the current case did not contain the type of white collar acts that the creators of the Sarbanes-Oxley intended the law to cover.

The Fisherman and The Court

The case at issue stems from a 2007 search of the defendant’s fishing vessel while it was at sea. A coast guard field officer boarded the ship and discovered the presence of fish that were smaller than the minimum legal size allowed. As a result, a federal deputy issued a citation and instructed the fisherman and his crew to transport the crate of fish to the port for seizure. Instead, the fisherman threw the fish overboard and had his crew replace the fish with larger fish that were legally compliant. However, this fish switch was revealed at the second port of inspection and crew members told federal law enforcement officials what they had done. As a result, the fisherman was found guilty of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley because the fish he threw overboard were considered evidence that was supposed to be seized, but instead was destroyed.

The SC seemed to be in favor of the fisherman’s argument that fish should not be considered the type of tangible object that Sarbanes-Oxley was intended to cover, and some Justices were especially critical about the decision to prosecute the fisherman in the first place. Justice Breyer even stated that the broad interpretation of Sarbanes-Oxley that was being asked for by the prosecutor could technically allow for federal prosecution for simply destroying a census form. Breyer was concerned that with such a broad interpretation “the risk of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is a real one.” In general, the SC has been wary of supporting legal interpretations of federal laws that expand the reach of such laws to minor crimes such as this one. As a result, the SC chastised the prosecutor for abusing prosecutorial discretion and for branding the fisherman as a criminal mastermind.

However, though the Justices seemed concerned about the potentially overly broad and sweeping interpretation of the law, they still decided in favor of the federal prosecutor finding that these issues of interpretation were not specifically raised in the case before them, and thus should not be controlling on the ultimate outcome of the case. As a result, the SC reaffirmed the lower court ruling that the fisherman should serve 30 days in jail. Facing federal charges can be extremely daunting. If you need legal representation in a Sarbanes-Oxley suit, or for any other cases brought under federal law, contact white-collar criminal defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. in South Florida today.

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