A Suffolk County Supreme Court judge has temporarily delayed criminal proceedings against more than a dozen fishermen cited for trespassing last month on Amagansett’s Truck Beach after a lawyer for nearby residents filed a request to shift their violations into an existing civil proceeding.
The 14 fishermen were issued the citations during an Oct. 17 protest intended to act as a test case for beach rights they say their families have enjoyed for centuries. Residents want to keep trucks off the beach that a court earlier this year found is their private property. Fishermen claim a prior and overarching treaty preserves their right to fish on the beach regardless of the ruling.
A motion filed on behalf of several Napeague and Amagansett homeowner groups Wednesday surprised lawyers for the fishermen and East Hampton Town, said Southampton attorney Daniel Rodgers, who is representing the fishermen. According to a copy of an order signed by Suffolk County Supreme Court Justice Paul Baisley Jr., the fishermen and town representatives must appear in court Nov. 29 to present arguments as to why the judge should not consolidate the trespassing violations being prosecuted in East Hampton Town Justice Court into the civil case.
Rodgers said there’s little precedent for moving criminal violations to civil court, a move he said deprives his clients of the right to enter pleas and to speedy trials.
"It seems to me that the attorneys for homeowners are frightened and afraid they’re going to receive a ruling in the local justice court that they don’t want to hear," said Rodgers, who noted courts have already ruled there’s an easement for fishing. "That’s why they’re seeking to move this [criminal case] to the civil court, which is unheard of and seems to me to be a power grab."
Stephen Angel, a Riverhead-based attorney representing the homeowners, filed the request on Nov. 3. The order, if granted, would remove the 14 trespassing summons and consolidate them with the civil action that has been in state court since 2009. The case was settled after the state Court of Appeals in September declined the town’s request to appeal it.
Christopher McDonald, of the Albany law firm Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna LLP who is representing East Hampton Town in the matter, in a Nov. 4 letter to Baisley called the homeowners’ request an "extraordinary and unprecedented" application. McDonald asked the judge not to sign the order for several reasons, including the fact the civil case had already been decided.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc could not be reached for comment. Van Scoyoc has previously said he is in favor of condemning the beach as a means of preserving public access.
Rodgers said he is considering asking the judge to require the homeowners to put up a $1 million performance bond to compensate fishermen in case the homeowners lose.
"They’re depriving the fishermen of their right to feed their families," he said, noting they’ve been off the beach for three or four months of prime fishing time.
14 East Hampton fishermen were issued trespassing citations during an Oct. 17 protest intended to act as a test case for beach rights
Nearby homeowners say the trespassing charges should be consolidated into an exisiting civil lawsuit
An attorney for East Hampton Town called the request “extraordinary and unprecedented”
The case is due back in court Nov. 29