Daniel G. Rodgers, the lawyer who successfully defended Paul and Kelly Lester in East Hampton Justice Court a month ago after they were charged with violations of conservation law related to a search of their property, held a press conference Monday afternoon to announce a coordinated effort to investigate the enforcement wing of the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s enforcement division.
State Senator Kenneth LaValle and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. are supporting the investigation, by the state inspector general’s office, into the seizure and subsequent sale of fish confiscated during enforcement actions. Mr. Rodgers asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to involve the inspector general in April.
D.E.C. enforcement officers seized just over $200 worth of fluke and porgies from the Lesters, inshore fishermen from East Hampton, last July. Kelly Lester was accused of having an illegal clam stand, her brother of possessing summer flounder, or fluke, beyond the daily quota. The officers took the haul to Stuart’s Fish Market nearby, where it was sold. The check was made out to the D.E.C., a standard practice. The Lesters’ efforts to get reimbursed for the seized catch have been unsuccessful.
Mr. Rodgers told reporters that D.E.C. police have extraordinary powers — “a drunk driver has more due process than a fisherman” — including the right to search boats, cars, and properties without a warrant. But, he said, it is the practice of seizing and selling fish that’s worthy of investigation.
“The D.E.C.’s argument goes like this: The property being seized is fish. They are mobile and can get away. Enforcement rules need to be relaxed if officers are to do their job.”
“We call this ‘Constitutional relaxation,’ but the logic is based on a faulty premise. The fish are no longer mobile. They have been caught and are not going anywhere.”
The attorney pointed to the D.E.C.’s own rule stating that “if an officer seizes property, including fish and shellfish, without a warrant, they must retain custody of the property until determination of any prosecution in which they are evidence.”
“Agents of the D.E.C. have been deliberately and flagrantly violating their own rules by illegally converting the property of fishermen and then paying themselves with the proceeds,” Mr. Rodgers stated in his release.
Attending Monday’s conference was Sydney Smith, a Greenport fisherman who Mr. Rodgers said had lost $8,000 worth of fish to D.E.C. police without due process. He said that the D.E.C.’s own rules state that money generated by the sale of confiscated fish must go to a separate conservation fund rather than to the agency’s general coffers.
Mr. Rodgers said he had asked the office of Inspector General Catherine Leahy to investigate “the length and scope of this policy to unlawfully liquidate before trial the assets of fishermen.