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Harsh white collar laws can have unintended effects

Someone who is facing a charge of fraud, embezzlement or other type of white collar crime in Pennsylvania may be looking at serious consequences, including heavy fines and a lengthy prison sentence. State and federal laws do not look kindly on white collar crime. However, some laws that address this may have consequences that are harsher than intended when the laws were written, or they may affect people with no real connection to white collar crime.

One such case happened to a fishing captain, who had caught several red grouper that were smaller than the 20-inch limit. The fish were later thrown overboard, but the captain was charged and convicted of obstructing a federal investigation, simply for getting rid of the fish. This particular law was meant to aid prosecutors in convicting people who destroy documents, not throw fish overboard.

Fortunately for the fishing captain, a panel of Supreme Court judges recently ruled that fish did not qualify as the type of “tangible objects” outlined in the obstruction of justice statute, and his conviction was reversed. If not, he could have spent 20 years in prison.

This case and others like it show that it can be difficult for judges to look at obstruction of justice laws and so-called tangible objects, and apply them to each individual case. It remains to be seen whether clarifications or new laws will be drafted to address the problem, and possibly help someone who is accused of a white collar crime to get a fairer trial.

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

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