ELLSWORTH — Every once in a while, a case comes along that serves as a reminder that Maine courts, like the state’s many law enforcement agencies, are a part of what is loosely called the justice system and that most of the people who work in the courts and law enforcement agencies want to see justice done.
Last week, Trenton lobsterman Jacob White found himself before Superior Court Justice Robert E. Murray facing a civil violation of the state’s marine resources laws for fishing without a lobster license last October. Also before the court was the state’s seizure of 156 pounds of lobster White landed at the Seal Cove wharf on the day Marine Patrol Officer Jeff Turcotte issued the summons for unlicensed lobstering.
White decided to fight the case, and, perhaps a surprise, he won.
“I take pride in being a good fisherman and an honest fisherman,” White told the judge.
Murray evidently agreed, dismissing the unlicensed fishing charge and ordering the state to pay White for his seized lobsters. Neither Turcotte nor his supervisor, Sgt. Troy Dow, seemed dissatisfied with the result.
There was no dispute about the facts.
For some 20 years or so, White has fished as a sternman aboard a boat owned by his father, Frank White, out of Seal Cove on Blue Hill Bay. Neither man had a Maine lobster license, but the elder White held a valid lobster license issued by the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
Last fall, with the senior White laid up by back problems, Jacob needed to haul the family’s 800 traps and bring them to shore so that they wouldn’t be lost. Father and son traveled to the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point and met with then-Chief Vera Francis, who added Jacob’s name to his father’s tribal license.
The Whites returned to Trenton, and Jacob returned to the water to haul gear. After a warning from the Marine Patrol, White testified, he called the reservation and was told that the tribe would send the paperwork required by statute to the Department of Marine Resources in Augusta, and Francis told him “you’re good to go” fishing.
Within days, he was stopped on the water by Turcotte. At the pier in Seal Cove, Turcotte spoke to Francis by telephone, White said, but still issued a citation for fishing without a license and seized his lobsters.
Turcotte basically confirmed White’s story, and the fact that the Marine Patrol had no problems with either the younger White or his father. The problem, he testified, was that the tribe never faxed a copy of Jacob’s tribal license to the DMR, so, as far as the state was concerned, he was lobstering without a license.
White, who said he has never been cited for violation of the fishing laws, disagreed.
“I was led to believe I was good to go,” he testified. “Whether they did the paperwork, I have no idea. I just don’t feel, your honor, that I was wrong.”
Neither did Justice Murray. He dismissed the civil violation and ordered the Marine Patrol to pay White for the seized lobsters.
The judge found that the Passamaquoddy Tribe made an effort to authorize Jacob White to fish under a tribal license, that his name was physically added to his father’s valid tribal license, and that Turcotte knew all that.
“The state had the burden to prove that the defendant engaged in an unlawful activity,” Murray said. “That burden of proof has not been met.”
“I think that went well,” White said after his trial. “The judge was very understanding.”
After court, Dow told the fisherman that a check for the 156 pounds of lobsters Turcotte seized would be sent to him promptly.