Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

In this court, a rockfish may be the victim

Rare is the court docket where the charging officers more than double the number of defendants. But there were 15 members of the Maryland Natural Resources Police on Friday in Towson, taking up one side of a Baltimore County District Court courtroom.

“You guys are conscientious,” Judge Sally C. Chester said from the bench after the last case was heard. “You’re not like the Maryland transit police. They never show up.”

It was no coincidence that so many officers were in one room, however, as the docket made Baltimore County the 13th jurisdiction in the state to devote a monthly court session to fishing and crabbing violations, illegal foresting and hunting and other natural resources violations.

“It brings attention to the types of crimes that we deal with,” said Col. George F. Johnson IV, superintendent of the NRP.

The monthly dockets began three years ago in Anne Arundel County, spurred by a recommendation from a fishing advisory board and by Johnson’s conversations with his officers across the state.

“They were having a very difficult time at district court having their cases taken seriously,” Johnson said. “The state’s attorneys and judges weren’t up to speed on conservation regulations.”

To District Court of Maryland Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn, the natural resources cases were another specialized docket about which judges could be educated.

“When you’re in a criminal docket and then you have someone steals a rockfish, it doesn’t mean as much,” he said.

But natural resources violations mean a lot to Clyburn, a lifelong fisherman who in recent years has noticed changes for the worse at his favorite fishing spots.

Part of educating judges has been to help them understand the effect of the violations, Clyburn said. Take a defendant accused of illegally harvesting oysters, for example.

“Most judges don’t know about oysters. They don’t understand how much money the governor put into oyster conservation,” Clyburn said. “Now they realize how important [oyster conservation] is and how dangerous [illegal oyster harvesting] is.”

The NRP first created a primer for the court system, featuring regulations and common violations. Next, Johnson went to Anne Arundel County, where he previously served as sheriff, with the idea of the monthly docket. Three months after proposing the idea, the monthly docket was established in Annapolis.

“From the very first session of court,” Johnson said, “we were successful in showing why needed a stand-alone court date.”

In that session, he said, a waterman with repeated violations on his record was given house arrest and weekends in jail.

“We had not gotten anything like that before,” Johnson said.

Going after recidivists has been the biggest benefit of the monthly dockets. Before, Johnson said, “We would charge them, and they would look at it like it was the price of business.”

“Now,” Clyburn said, “they know the court’s attention is focused on natural resources in that docket.”

The program went from Anne Arundel County to the Eastern Shore before coming to Baltimore County. Howard and Carroll counties are next up, Johnson said. (Allegany and Garrett counties already had developed a similar model to the NRP, Johnson said.)

In Towson last week, the majority of the defendants failed to appear. The first defendant present was cited for fishing without a license.

“It was a beautiful day, and I honestly didn’t think I would get caught,” he admitted.

Chester made him pay a fine.

The next defendant was charged with working as a tree expert without a license as well as being a “forest product operator” without a license, meaning, as a Forest Service official explained to Chester, he needed a license to sell firewood.

“There’s no doubt you need a license to do what you’re doing, selling logs,” Chester told the defendant as she fined him $100. “Now you know what you can and can’t do.”

One of the last defendants of the day was cited for speeding on his boat, not having enough life preservers and not having his registration card.

Chester found him not guilty of not having his registration card.

“You’re perfectly correct to give him the ticket,” Chester told the charging officer.

The defendant said he was a first-time boat owner on his boat for the first time. Chester, who told those in the courtroom that she has a boating license she does not use, found him guilty of speeding.

“I could fine you a lot on the [life preservers], but I’m not,” she said.

Chester said after the hearing she was used to having natural resources cases sprinkled among the regular docket.

“It makes sense,” she said of the monthly docket. “It’s good to bring all of the officers into court.”