A legislative bid to more severely penalize those with wrung lobster tails on the water and possession of lobster out of season is gaining legal traction in Tallahassee.
House Bill 47 has already passed all its committees and could become law by as early as next week, but most likely the following week. All the votes to date have been unanimous, said State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.
"It really couldn't be going any better and all that needs to happen now is the bill to go before the rules chairman and put to a final vote," Raschein said.
The law would increase the penalties against multiple violators:
• If the first violation includes 25 or more illegal lobster, the law is bumped to a first-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in county jail and as much as $2,000 in fines;
• A second violation is another first-degree misdemeanor, but also a suspension of fishing licenses for no more than 90 days;
• A third violation is a first-degree misdemeanor with a mandatory prison term of six months, $2,500 in fines and all fishing license revocations to not exceed six months. A caveat was added to the third violation: If it occurs within one year after the second violation, there is mandatory minimum of one year in prison, a $5,000 fine and all fishing licenses will be permanently revoked.
• A fourth violation would constitute a third-degree felony, with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of one year, fines of $5,000 and all permanently fishing license revoked. The maximum prison sentence for a third-degree felony is five years in prison.
"This bill addressed the two most common offenses in the spiny lobster fishery," said Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly. "We're in agreement with State Rep. Holly Raschein, and (Monroe County) State Attorney Catherine Vogel in championing this issue in the legislature."
The process of updating penalties in the stone crab fishery is not part of this legislation, but is expected to arrive later, Kelly said.
The legislation dropped earlier language that would have tacked on one charge for every lobster in illegal possession as that language took some discretionary enforcement out of the hands of police and marine patrol officers, which was deemed unfair, Kelly said.
Kelly explained the decision by using a hypothetical scenario: "Suppose a commercial fisherman with no prior history has a great day and has 800 lobsters in his tanks, but officers find three or four undersized in his tanks?"
In such cases, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers should have some discretion, Kelly said.
The proposed bill legalese was co-written by Assistant State Attorney Colleen Dunne who spearheaded a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012 that allows judges to send trap robbers to prison for as long as five years.
Robbing traps has been a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and $5,000 in fines, but due to a restriction that went into effect on July 1, 2009, judges had to find that offenders were a threat to public safety in order to impose state prison sentences. Under that restriction, judges could only sentence nonviolent trap robbers to a maximum of 364 days in county jail.
Scott's signature on the law removes that restriction. Dunne was subsequently honored as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Prosecutor of the Year in 2012.