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DEC officers deny targeting Shinnecock in eel fishing case

A Shinnecock tribal member was ticketed for illegally possessing baby eels; he says tribal fishing rights allow him to fish.

Former Shinnecock Indian tribal leader David Taobi Silva

Former Shinnecock Indian tribal leader David Taobi Silva stands on the dock on Heady Creek, in the Shinnecock Reservation, on Jan. 3, 2018. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Two state enforcement officers who in 2017 ticketed a Shinnecock Indian Nation member for illegal eel possession denied in court Thursday that they were targeting tribal members in a sting operation even though they received an email from their boss alerting them to “Shinnecock and glass eels.” 

Claims that the tribe was unfairly targeted for enforcement are at the core of the defense of David Taobi Silva, a former Shinnecock tribal trustee who received multiple violations from state Department of Environmental Conservation police for illegally possessing less than a half pound of the baby eels during a DEC plainclothes sting operation on April 20, 2017. Sivla has filed a separate discrimination case against the DEC with Suffolk County’s human rights commission. 

Silva, who has never denied fishing for the eels, which the DEC contends were undersized and over the 25-fish limit, has argued that the tribe’s aboriginal fishing rights allow members to harvest fish for miles around the Southampton reservation. 

But Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Jamie Greenwood sought to establish through questioning of the officers that the section of Taylor’s Creek where Silva was ticketed wasn't on Shinnecock land but in the Town of Southampton and therefore subject to state fishing rules. 

DEC officers Evan Laczi and Brian Farrish acknowledged receiving a March 2017 email from a commanding officer noting that Shinnecock members were believed to be looking for a shipper for glass eels, for which there are lucrative overseas markets. But both denied the tribe was specifically targeted. 

When Southampton Town Court Justice Gary Weber sought to clarify that the “issue isn’t the Shinnecock people, it’s the defendant,” Silva’s attorney Scott Moore disagreed. 

“It’s race, judge,” he said. “Replace the word Shinnecock with black or Latino — it’s a race indicator." 

Newsday has previously reported that emails released previously during the trial show that DEC police had set up a sting operation in waters around the tribe’s Southampton reservation for weeks before Silva was charged.

When the defense rested on Thursday, Moore asked Weber to dismiss the case, citing DEC officers’ lack of knowledge of a DEC policy for "contact, cooperation and consultation" with tribes, and ambiguity over tribal water boundaries. Greenwood countered that evidence of Silva’s guilt was “incontrovertible.” 

Weber said he would rule on the dismissal motion at a later date. The case is expected to continue into the spring. 

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