Fish and Wildlife Violations
Protecting Paradise – The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Residing in Florida is often described as “living in paradise,” and this reputation is due in large part to its abundant, diverse and extraordinary wildlife. The state’s natural habitat is home to over 700 land animals, more than 200 freshwater fish, more than 1000 marine fish, and many other aquatic vertebrates. Those who live in, or have visited, Florida can attest to frequent encounters with gopher tortoises, alligators, Mahi-Mahi, stone crabs, spiny lobster, manatees, woodpeckers, flamingos, blue herons, Sandhill cranes, and many other land and water animals.
Yet, “the Sunshine State” has a dark side: Many species are considered endangered, threatened or conservation dependent due to human interaction with our wildlife and natural habitat. Whether a person blatantly disregards the value of nature or is simply making an innocent mistake, activities such as excessive fishing, excessive hunting, fishing young or undersized fish, boating carelessly, fishing out of season, hunting out of season, and entering restricted, protected nature areas can have a devastating effect on fish and wildlife.
Aware of Florida’s increasing run-ins with nature, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was founded in 1999 to regulate the state’s fish and wildlife resources. FWC is a government agency with the power to prosecute fish and wildlife violations across the state. Its law enforcement officers are committed to protecting Florida’s animals and habitat, and they zealously do so by issuing infractions as well as criminal citations to violators.
FWC Laws, Regulations, and Penalties
The Florida Constitution authorizes FWC to enact rules and regulations regarding fish and wildlife resources within the state. Fulfilling its purpose, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission established rules and regulations codified in Chapter 68 of the Florida Administrative Code and Chapter 379 of the Florida Statutes. These laws govern actions with respect to marine life, aquatic life, wild animal life, boating, recreational activities, and licensing in Florida. Common fish and wildlife violations include:
- Failure to remove stone crab traps within five days after the close of stone crab season
- Harvesting or possessing a dolphin (mahi-mahi) that is less than 20 inches in fork length
- Fishing marine life without a saltwater fishing license
- Harvesting or possessing undersized spiny lobster
- Harvesting or possessing Snook out of season (closed seasons in the Atlantic are June 1 through August 31 and December 15 through January 31).
- Exceeding the recreational bag limit of two king mackerel per person, per day
- Fishing for swordfish with prohibited gear (only hook and line gear is allowed)
- Taking or disturbing sea turtles, nests or eggs
- Feeding Alligators or Crocodiles
- Possession of wildlife without a permit
Click here for more information regarding Fish and Wildlife Violations.
Correspondingly, FWC also established penalties for failure to follow Fish and Wildlife laws. Penalties for fish and wildlife violations range from a civil infraction to a felony criminal charge depending on the nature and frequency of the violation. Section 379.401 of the Florida Statutes lists four levels of severity – from One (the least severe) through Four (the most severe):
- LEVEL ONE – Violations involving licensing, permits, reporting, and management areas. Level One violations are noncriminal infractions requiring payment of civil penalties.
- LEVEL TWO – Violations involving fishing or hunting out of season, size and bag limits, fishing or hunting methods, restricted areas, tagging requirements, and feeding wildlife. Level Two violations are criminal charges classified as second degree misdemeanors, punishable by 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. However, a Level Two violation can escalate to a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a $1000 fine, for violators with prior FWC convictions.
- LEVEL THREE – Violations involving sale of saltwater fish, exotic marine plants or animals, taking game or fish while a required license is suspended, importation of freshwater fish, transportation of commercial quantities of freshwater fish, possession of deer and wild turkey, sale or possession of alligators, and other major violations. A level three violation is a first degree misdemeanor. Violators with prior FWC convictions face mandatory fines and the suspension of recreational licenses in addition to the possibility of jail and the standard fine.
- LEVEL FOUR – Violations involving the criminal taking of stone crabs and blue crabs, unlawful production of spiny lobster trap tags, willful molestation of gear, forging recreational licenses, killing alligator eggs, and sale of illegally-taken deer or wild turkey. A Level Four violation is a third degree felony, punishable by 5 years in prison and a $5000 fine.
FWC Charging Process
A Fish and Wildlife charge normally begins with an FWC law enforcement officer issuing a citation or Notice to Appear (NTA) at the scene of the alleged incident. The charging document may be civil or criminal, depending on the alleged violation.
A civil citation does not generally require a court appearance, but you may elect court to address your case in front of a judge. Keep in mind that payment of a civil citation without electing court constitutes an automatic guilty plea and conviction on your record; it may be best to take your case to court for the opportunity to negotiate with law enforcement, ask the court for leniency, or hold the FWC officer to his or her burden of proof.
A criminal citation or Notice to Appear comes with a mandatory court appearance. After serving the accused the charging document on scene, the FWC officer submits a copy to the clerk of courts. The clerk then enters the charging document into the court system and creates a case number for the FWC case. Next, the clerk mails the defendant a Notice of Hearing which contains the date, time and place for arraignment (formal reading of the charges).
At arraignment, the judge asks the defendant to enter a plea of either “guilty” or “not guilty.” Because resolving a case at arraignment does not allow for negotiation with the prosecution, a review of the evidence, and consideration of all options, most people plead “not guilty” at this stage. A “not guilty” plea at arraignment does not mean a case will go to trial; it simply means the accused is taking the time to hire a lawyer, demand disclosure of the evidence, and weigh his or her options. Pleading “not guilty” at arraignment is usually the wise choice, as sometimes an experienced FWC lawyer can later negotiate an agreement that results in dismissal of the case upon completion of the terms.
Naturally, a plea of “not guilty” at arraignment means additional court dates. Pre-trial court dates are called pretrial, case disposition, status check, or plea conference. The point of these hearings is to evaluate your case, negotiate a better plea offer, and prepare a defense. Ultimately, you will hopefully make an informed decision as to whether you will resolve your case with a negotiated settlement or take your case to trial. A criminal defense attorney experienced in FWC cases will be able to provide appropriate advice based on an assessment of the plea offer as compared to the strength of your case.
How Casanova Law Can Help
Founding Attorney of Casanova Law, a Wellington Criminal Defense Law Firm focused on Fish and Wildlife cases.
If you are charged with a Florida Fish and Wildlife violation, Casanova Law can help. Casanova Law is a criminal defense law firm in Wellington experienced in litigating FWC cases. Attorney Lourdes Casanova is a former prosecutor for Palm Beach County and a native of South Florida. Casanova’s particularized focus on FWC law and our local natural landscape will give you an advantage on your Fish and Wildlife case.
Call us today for a consultation.