John Yates can breathe easy again. Today the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction (pdf) for destroying documents to hide evidence of a crime. The alleged crime: carrying undersized fish. The documents in question: the fish themselves.
In a case that caused much hilarity when it was heard last November, the court was told that an officer of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had made an inspection aboard Yates’ fishing boat, the Miss Katie, and found that some of the fish in its catch of red grouper—72 fish, to be exact—were as much as 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) shorter than the 20 inches mandated by law. The officer wrote Yates a ticket for carrying undersized fish and ordered him to keep them apart from the rest of the catch until he reached port. Instead, Yates told his crew to throw the small fish overboard.
Yates was convicted of breaking a law known (pdf) as the “Sarbanes-Oxley anti-shredding statute.” This makes it a crime to knowingly tamper with evidence that could be used in a federal investigation, and was originally meant to prevent people at companies facing potential probes from shredding documents, deleting emails, and the like. The law targets anyone who ”knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.”
Yates’s appeal contended that fish did not count as a “record, document, or tangible object,” because Congress intended Sarbanes-Oxley to cover only objects that could be used to store information, such as hard drives, memory sticks, and pieces of paper. The Supreme Court agreed, though four of the nine judges dissented. (“A ‘tangible object’ is an object that’s tangible,” wrote Elena Kagan acidly in the dissenting opinion.)
The journalist and security researcher Julian Sanchez saw an opportunity:
One might, of course, argue that the moment you engrave something on fish scales, they become an explicitly intended information-storage device, and you are no longer safe from prosecution. We advise that you consult a legal expert first.