St. Paul — A week after a federal judge dismissed the cases against five tribal members charged with buying, selling, and transporting fish illegally, no appeal has been made by federal prosecutors, according to the DNR’s Col. Ken Soring, Division of Enforcement director.
Nor has an appeal come from the attorneys for two other tribal members who, by another federal judge, had their request for dismissal of similar charges rejected in October.
The situations, Soring said, “were being evaluated.”
In total, 10 men were charged in federal court with violations of the Lacey Act, which prohibits the sale of fish and wildlife, among other things. Charges against five of the men were dismissed, charges against three were upheld, the case continues against another is pending, and one has entered a guilty plea. The dismissal of charges last week against five members of the Red Lake, Leech Lake, and White Earth bands opens the door to several outcomes, and likely appeals, sources say.
On Nov. 25, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim ruled that tribal rights granted via treaties – particularly that of 1837 – couldn’t be restricted by Lacey Act, that Congress intended for treaty rights “to remain intact.”
If the tribal members were to be charged, the judge said, the federal court wasn’t the appropriate jurisdiction.
Other individuals were charged in state and tribal courts, the result of an investigation that began four years ago, and was named Operation Squarehook, a reference to the gill nets used to capture the walleyes that law enforcement says were illegally sold on the black market.
About 30 people faced state charges, according to Soring. Most commonly, he said, those were people who knowingly bought fish that were illegally harvested. Other charges, he said, included illegal possession of fish, driving while impaired, and illegally taking wild turkeys, among other things.
“But it was mostly the (illegal) sale and purchase of fish,” Soring said. In some cases, the charges were gross misdemeanors, but were plea-bargained down to misdemeanors.
Individuals also were charged in tribal courts.
Federal charges, Soring said, tend to come with stiffer penalties. Because the 10 defendants were charged with violations of the Lacey Act, they were charged in federal court, he added. Further, those charged in federal court were the “main players,” who were selling fish, he said. “Ours (state-charged) were people buying (fish) on a few occasions.”
All told, officials say the market value of the walleyes bought and sold in the Squarehook case totalled “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The fish primarily were netted from lakes like Winnibigoshish, Leech, and Red, he said.
Should the dismissals stand, and perhaps charges against others be dropped on the same grounds, it’s possible tribes could charge those men for violation of tribal conservation codes, something a Red Lake Band official said would happen.
Shauna Coons, a special prosecutor for the Leech Lake Band, said that band is awaiting the outcome of federal proceedings before acting.
State officials, Soring said, “are still proceeding with state cases. With those that haven’t been charged, we’re encouraging county attorneys to get those filed.”