With a state inspector general investigation of its enforcement practices under way, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is reviewing its procedures for seizing fish in cases in which fishermen are later acquitted, a top agency official said.
The probe and the review come in the wake of complaints by fishermen and others that fish and equipment were confiscated and sold by DEC agents in enforcement actions without the chance to reclaim them -- even in cases where the accused were found not guilty.
State lawmakers have introduced legislation seeking to limit the DEC's practice of warrantless seizures.
In an interview last week, Marc Gerstman, the DEC's executive deputy commissioner, said the agency "will cooperate with any inspector general's investigation" and added that it was reviewing procedures.
"We are looking at the policies regulating the return of seized assets when there is an acquittal or a finding of no liability to see if additional measures should be implemented," he said.
Last week at a news conference in Amagansett, a lawyer for fishermen called the practice of selling seized fish "illegal," saying the agency must freeze and hold the catch as evidence.
"These [DEC agents] are guys with guns stealing from people," charged Daniel Rodgers of Riverhead, who represents several fishermen who have spoken with IG investigators. "A drunk driver has more due process rights in getting his vehicle back than a fisherman does for fish he worked all day to catch."
A spokeswoman for the inspector general's office declined to discuss any investigation, but said anyone with information about the practices of a state agency could call the office's complaint hotline at 800-367-4448.
Gerstman declined to comment on the pending legislation. But he described the agency's authority to search and seize without a warrant as "essential" to DEC enforcement.
"The law allows for warrantless search and seizures," he said. "It would be very, very difficult without that authority, if not impossible, to do an effective enforcement job."