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The Florida "fish case" and "over-criminalization"

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. 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 not too long ago, 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 case has become popularly referred to as "the fish case."

The underlying facts involved a Florida fisherman who was accused of having caught undersize fish and was then accused of throwing some of them back into the water instead of bringing them to shore to be counted. That act led to the fisherman being accused of a violation of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, a law that federal prosecutors use to punish corporations and individuals of accounting fraud, conviction under which can lead to imprisonment for up to 20 years.

The fisherman argued at trial that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was intended to apply to media meant to store information, like documents or computer hard drives. The jury disagreed, and convicted him. On appeal to a federal court of appeals, it agreed with the that a fish can be a "tangible object" under Sarbanes-Oxley.

The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals, agreeing with Yates' interpretation and remanding the case back to the trial court.

The real significance of the case, though, is that for the first time the Court referred to "over-criminalization" 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.

Over-criminalization 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.

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