Officers of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation have a unique ability in their efforts to regulate the fishing industry. They have been engaging in searches and seizures without warrants, confiscating fish and selling them without giving the anglers a chance to challenge the confiscations.
Recent moves in Albany could finally change that. Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), along with Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), have sponsored legislation to rein in these uncommon powers, bringing them in line with those of other police and regulatory agencies.
But there has been pushback. The union representing conservation officers has stepped in to lobby lawmakers against this legislation, noting that other states permit such acts without warrants. Supporters of the current laws share a common argument: that taking away the ability to participate in such routine warrantless searches and seizures will make it impossible to enforce our conservation laws, particularly when it comes to fishing. Enforcement officers believe that, since boats and fish are mobile, any anglers disobeying regulations will get away before an officer can engage the services of our courts.
There's little dispute that state laws grant extraordinary powers to conservation officers to enforce regulations designed to protect the environment. But are they really necessary, particularly in light of the fact that they seem to fly in the face of basic constitutional protections? The Bill of Rights guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring probable cause and judicial review. Is this the only method available to adequately enforce our laws and effectively protect and preserve our environment?
Many of these unusual provisions were incorporated into state law from federal Coast Guard regulations from times long past. They were created when authorities were still chasing pirates. Indeed, it does sound impractical to obtain a search warrant when you're attempting to stop and seize a schooner full of booty on the high seas.
But times have changed. There are better ways to enforce our laws, protect the environment and treat fishermen and women as citizens worthy of constitutional protections.
The argument that permitting ordinary checks and balances to anglers would deny conservation officers the ability to do their job is faulty and misleading. Yes, fish are mobile. But let's face it, they've been caught -- they aren't going anywhere. Should conservation officers, armed with guns and the power to arrest, be permitted to rifle through your boat or garage or pockets without benefit of probable cause? We can't continue to tolerate arbitrary seizures of personal property in the name of conservation.
We grant immense powers to police officers. They have the power to arrest and detain you, to charge you with a crime and lock you up -- all without a warrant or judicial review. Speed and time are rarely in abundance when a police officer on the street has to make split-second decisions. But when it comes to searching a private person's car or boat or pockets, the officers need something more: probable cause to believe a crime has occurred or, in some instances, a warrant. And that makes sense.
Fishermen say that the vast majority of inspections by conservation officers do not occur at sea. Most happen at the dock or in a fish store or on the beach. That's no surprise; it's dangerous to board another ship at sea, particularly when you can achieve the same purpose dockside. It is unnecessary to employ a different procedure.
The legislation sponsored in Albany seeks only to bring conservation officers into the 21st century and require that they follow the same rules and regulations as other police agencies in the state.
Daniel G. Rodgers is an attorney is Suffolk County who represents East End baymen.