A Southampton city judge on Tuesday agreed to dismiss trespassing charges against 14 East Hampton fishermen for leading a protest at a disputed Napeague beach last year, after a prosecutor said the owners who claimed the beach had refused to file trespassing charges.
Judge Gary Weber’s ruling in Hampton Bays court was seen as a victory for anglers and, by association, any East Hampton residents who would like to drive the one-mile stretch of Napeague known as of Truck Beach, the fishermen and their lawyer said.
“I’ll spread the word, if you have a commercial or recreational fishing license, the beach is open,” said Daniel Lester, a commercial fisherman from Amagansett whose trespassing charge was among 14 dismissed. “Start using it again.”
His solicitor, Southampton barrister Daniel Rodgers, said the fact that none of the owners who filed and won a series of legal actions came forward to file trespassing affidavits after police of the city charged the fishermen with violations for trespassing “may be considered consent” to fish on the beach, by truck or by other means.
“The fight is over,” Rodgers said, pointing to a reservation or easement in the 1882 bill of sale that permitted “fishing and fishing-related activities” for East Hampton residents.
But James Catterson, an attorney for some of the owners, said in a Newsday interview that this reading of the law is incorrect and that the lower court cannot overrule higher court decisions.
The owners of Amagansett had sued the city and its administrators in 2009, claiming that East Hampton had no right to allow the public to drive on the 4,000 linear foot beach. A state Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of East Hampton in 2016, but a panel of Appeals Division judges overturned that decision in February. The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, declined to hear the case last month.
“Nope [town] The Court of Justice has the power to overrule the decision of the Supreme Court, the Appellate Division or the Court of Appeal, and lawyers for the fishermen should know that,” Catterson said.
Catterson said the reservation “comes down to this, although there may be some rights to fish on the beach, there are no rights to drive trucks on the beach. The Appeals Chamber issued a injunction against him.
But Rodgers said the reserve is unambiguous in allowing a range of fishing-related activities, including driving trucks to get there. He issued cards to fishermen to wear on the beach stating that they are “engaged in fishing-related activities”, along with a copy of the 1882 act.
Additionally, Rodgers said, he and his supporters plan to launch the Stuart B. Vorpahl Sunday Afternoon Truck Beach Fishing Clinic in Truck Beach next spring and encourage all eligible residents of the city to attend for classes.
The case has seen twists and turns in the court system since 2009. Most recently, it resulted in charges of criminal contempt by a civil court judge hearing the case in Riverhead court against officials from East Hampton Town, including its supervisor, Peter Van Scoyoc. The city and its administrators appealed this decision.
The case landed in Southampton Court after two East Hampton judges recused themselves for unexplained reasons.
Bradford Magill, acting deputy chief of the Suffolk County Attorney’s Office, told Weber that his office and East Hampton Town police had sought “unsuccessfully to obtain trespassing affidavits” from residents to prosecute the business, but none would have agreed to do so. As the charges against each of the fishermen were read out in court, he read a statement asking the judge to dismiss the charges. Magill declined to comment after the proceedings.
Rodgers outside the courtroom told fishermen the beach was now ‘unregulated’ and they were free to engage in a wide range of fishing-related activities, including driving trucks to get there.
“There’s a way for the owners to get any kind of relief imaginable within this reserve and that’s to give it back, and that’s what we’re asking them to do – give the beach back to the city” and let the city create “meaningful” regulations for its use for fishing, Rodgers said.