A third-generation Greenport fisherman and a longtime fishing clan from Amagansett have received reimbursement checks from New York State following seizures in enforcement actions they said were unconstitutional.
The fishermen had argued that the state Department of Environmental Conservation had deprived them of their right to due process when it confiscated and sold their fish before a trial, keeping proceeds even if defendants were found not guilty or pleaded to significantly lesser charges. In July, the DEC suspended the seizure practice pending a review.
Sidney Smith, a commercial fisherman from Greenport, Monday received a check for $8,333 from the state after two felony charges against him for possessing and selling fish beyond legal limits were reduced to misdemeanors. The DEC in June 2011 intercepted a payment to Smith from a wholesaler after alleging that he possessed fluke, blackfish and porgies well beyond the legal limits. Smith had a special permit to catch the fish, but said he delayed sending an email to regulators notifying them that he planned to use it -- resulting in the charges.
Smith's attorney, Daniel Rodgers of Riverhead, said the payments represented a milestone.
"What you have here are two victories for fishermen," Rodgers said, noting that the DEC has both suspended fishing seizures and returned money to fishermen. "I'm not aware of any other case where they've actually returned assets after seizing them."
Smith said he probably would use the returned money to "buy some fuel to go fishing," but said the money was only a portion of what he lost as a result of the enforcement action. He has since been forced to fish in Rhode Island because the action prevented him from getting a $10 permit to fish in New York.
The DEC first said it would return the money last fall. Earlier this month, after Newsday inquiries, DEC spokeswoman Lisa King said the checks were delayed because of incorrect tax ID numbers.
Explaining the reimbursements last year, the DEC said it "reviewed the matters and determined that because the Lesters were acquitted after trial and Smith's plea bargain agreement did not include forfeiture as part of the terms, these defendants are entitled to the return of the seized evidence in their cases."
Rodgers, who represented Kelly and Paul Lester, said the sister and brother fishing family donated the proceeds to the Amagansett Ambulance Corps.
They are the children of Calvin Lester, one of the last generation of fishermen to fish from dories launched from East End beaches.Over the past year, Rodgers and more than three dozen fishermen and fish dealers from Montauk to the Bronx, have been meeting with investigators for the state inspector general, detailing what they view as unfair treatment in issuing permits, seizing property, levying fines and declaring moratoriums. Rodgers charged that state mismanagement has prevented a new generation of fishermen from entering the fishery and is chasing off the current generation. A spokesman for the inspector general's office wasn't immediately available for comment.
"These guys are walking away" from fishing, Rodgers said. "This is an industry on life support."