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White Collar Crime and Fish Shredding

Posted on in Criminal Defense

Supreme Court decision, Wisconsin criminal defense attorney, Wisconsin defense lawyerFor many people, the mention of white collar crime conjures up images of corporate executives undertaking shady accounting practices and then shredding their paper trail. White collar crime does not normally bring to mind fishermen and fishing regulations, but the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case, Yates v. U.S., that could expand a major law against white collar crime to other arenas. Depending on which way the case comes out, it could have important implications for how the federal government handles criminal law.

Yates v. U.S.

The defendant in the case is a fisherman who was out catching red grouper. His boat was stopped and his catch was inspected because it is only legal to catch red grouper above a certain size. The inspector on the boat found fish that were too small, and he ordered the defendant to bring his boat in to shore so that the fish could be seized. During the trip to shore, the defendant destroyed the offending fish and replaced them with others in an attempt to avoid prosecution. Now he has been brought up on charges related to white collar crime and the destruction of evidence, colloquially known as the “anti-shredding law.”

The Anti-Shredding Law

The anti-shredding law was passed as a part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was Congress' response to the corporate scandals like Enron Corporation. The law, which can be found at 18 U.S.C. §1519, makes it a crime to “knowingly [] destroy []...any record, document, or tangible object” with the goal of hindering a federal investigation. The law was passed in order to criminalize accounting firms and other companies' shredding of financial records to hide evidence of other white collar crimes. Now, the Supreme Court is forced to answer the question “Can a person 'shred' a fish?”

The answer to the question depends on how the court interprets the statute. On the one hand, a fish is clearly a 'tangible object' in the most common sense of the term. It is a physical thing that someone can hold and touch. However, tangible object is a broad term, encompassing virtually every physical thing. There is a rule that courts sometimes use to interpret laws that states that broad terms in a list should be read in light of the other things on the list. Essentially the argument goes that Congress was trying to create a catchall term in the list in case someone destroyed something like a hard drive, which might not be a record or document, and that the destruction of fish was not a part of the statute. The Court will have to decide which interpretation makes more sense.

If you have recently been charged with a white collar crime, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today. Our firm is here to help you defend your rights in court.

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