The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit by environmentalist groups seeking to expand the reach of the government’s criminal statutes under the Endangered Species Act.
WildEarth Guardians filed the lawsuit in 2013 contending someone doesn’t have to be aware of the Endangered Species Act or intend to violate it to be convicted, fined and jailed under the law.
The 9th Circuit ruled, however, the environmentalists didn’t have standing to sue.
The court said the groups “could not show that overturning the United States’ interpretation would benefit any of the environmental interests the groups cited.”
The Sacramento-based represented the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, New Mexico Farm and Livestock Bureau, and New Mexico Federal Lands Council.
Under the proposed changes, someone could face prison time for accidentally getting too close to an endangered rodent or spider.
PLF’s Jonathan Wood charged the environmentalists legal theory was extreme, because “a person could be imprisoned and criminally fined for causing harm to a member of a protected species, regardless of whether they knew what species it was.”
“In many cases, this won’t seem so sympathetic. The plaintiffs hypothesized a hunter who thought he was hunting a coyote and carelessly shot a critically endangered wolf. For many people, it’s difficult to feel too sorry for someone being punished when they intentionally set out to kill an animal for sport.
Wood explained in a 2016 law review article that the term “take” used in the law “covers far more activities than hunting and applies to many species far more obscure than wolves.”
“If this lawsuit had succeeded, you could be locked in a federal penitentiary for a year and fined $100,000 if you accidentally hit a rare rodent scurrying in front of your car on a dimly lit highway,” he said.
“You could suffer the same fate if you accidentally disturbed the wrong insect while building a tree house for your kids. You would even commit a serious crime if, someone else having run over a rare animal in the street in front of your house, you moved it before your kids went out to play and were disturbed by it.
“Simply put, the lawsuit aimed to criminalize a wide range of ordinary, innocent acts simply because the person who committed them was unlucky enough to be near an endangered or threatened species,” he explained.
The Supreme Court already has decided criminal law cannot be stretched that far.
In fact, Justice Ruth Ginsburg wrote in one opinion, adopted by the court, that the federal government must “shield people against punishment for apparently innocent activity.”
when Wood warned that “every American could face some level of potential risk, because activities that we take for granted – including driving, biking or walking – could lead to criminal punishment if you somehow harm one of the more than 1,500 species on the ESA list.”