Courts trying to interpret white-collar-crime laws narrowly

When it comes to proposing new laws, especially criminal laws, legislators have to be very careful about how statutes are worded. If they are worded too narrowly, would-be offenders may find easy loopholes through which they can avoid conviction. But if laws are worded too broadly, they can sometimes be misused to prosecute individuals in inappropriate ways.

Thankfully, courts around the nation are beginning to take a more conservative approach when it comes to statutes written to prosecute white-collar crimes. By deciding to narrowly interpret such statutes, courts are attempting to prevent these laws from doing more harm than good.

A case that was recently decided by U.S. Supreme Court is a good example. The case concerned a commercial fisherman whose boat had been subjected to an offshore inspection. At the time, federal conservation regulations did not allow fisherman to keep red grouper (a type of fish) that were less than 20 inches long.

The federal agent found that some of the fish aboard the boat were too small. He ordered the captain to keep those fish until the boat pulled into port and to keep them separate from other fish. Before returning, however, the fisherman told one of his crew members to get rid of the fish by throwing them back into the ocean.

Several years after this seemingly innocuous incident, the fisherman was charged under an obstruction of justice statute contained in the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The statute he allegedly violated prohibited the destruction or alteration of “any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence a federal investigation."

This statute was seemingly intended to prevent financial misconduct like accounting fraud, and a conviction could come with up to 20 years in prison. But do undersized fish count as the types of "tangible objects" envisioned in the statute? Thankfully, the Supreme Court decided to read the statute narrowly and overturned the fisherman's conviction.

Most would agree that prosecuting the fisherman was a clear misuse of that particular obstruction of justice statute. Nonetheless, this case demonstrates that correct interpretation of white-collar crime laws is as important as how those laws are worded and written. As such, anyone facing charges related to white-collar crime needs the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney who can argue for interpreting laws in their appropriate context.

Source: The New York Times, "Narrowing the Definition of White-Collar Crimes," Peter J. Henning, March 3, 2015

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