In People v. Wetle, a commercial fisherman was prosecuted under sections of the California Code of Regulations 14 section 632(a)(1)(C) and section 180.2 (Fish and Game Code 12000(a)).
Commercial crab fishermen use large “crab traps” to trap crab. The traps are baited and dropped into the ocean to “soak” – i.e., sit at the bottom of the ocean. A buoy with the commercial fishing license number is attached to the trap so that the fishermen can return and retrieve the trap.
If the fisherman can’t retrieve the trap for whatever reason the problem is that the crabs will become trapped inside and die from lack of food and their remains become bait for other crabs, thus creating a vicious cycle and causing needless destruction of wildlife.
To prevent this California law requires that each crab trap be outfitted with what’s called a “destruction device” so that, if the fisherman doesn’t return after a period of time, the lid on the trap will be able to be opened and the crabs can escape [CA ADC § 180.2].
Prejudicial Instructional Error Helped the Defendant’s Convictions Get Dismissed
Investigators found that Mr. Wetle’s license number was attached to traps without a “destruction device” on them. The thing is that Mr. Wetle presented evidence that he was out of the country at the time the traps were placed and that he had leased the traps to another fisherman, who was responsible for placing them illegally without the “destruction device” on them. In fact the other fisherman testified at Mr. Wetle’s trial that he placed the traps illegally.
The prosecution, apparently seeing a problem with their case, and bent on securing a conviction, convinced the trial court to give the jury 2 “special jury instructions” that essentially undercut Mr. Wetle’s defense and indicated that the prosecution did not have to prove that Mr. Wetle personally placed the illegal traps to find him guilty. Mr. Wetle’s lawyers objected, but to no avail.
Mr. Wetle was convicted and sentenced to 40 days in jail, ordered to pay over $4,000 in fines, and was placed on probation for 3 years. Mr. Wetle’s appeal to the Superior Court Appellate Department was not successful, so he appealed to the 6th District Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the constitution requires that the prosecutor prove ALL elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. In this case, the court noted that the law requires a showing that the “defendant” employed the illegal trap or illegally damaged wildlife – not just that someone associated with the defendant did.
The Court found the prosecutor’s “special instructions” allowed the jury to find Mr. Wetle guilty even if proof of an element was missing – a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. As such, the Court of Appeals reversed Mr. Wetle’s conviction and granted him a new trial.
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