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Florida divers appeal felony theft convictions for freeing sharks

An 11th Circuit panel appeared divided Tuesday on whether a federal court in Florida fairly convicted two divers of theft after they freed dying sharks from what they claimed to believe was an illegal fishing line.

(CN) — An attorney for two Florida divers who cut what they allegedly believed was an illegal, abandoned fishing line to free 19 dying sharks asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to overturn his clients’ theft convictions.

After a five-day trial, Tanner Mansell and John Moore, Jr. were each convicted in federal court of one count of theft of property in the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

The two men removed fishing gear from waters off Florida’s eastern coast and cut sharks loose from a line which turned out to belong to a fishing boat. The vessel's owner had a rare permit to harvest sandbar sharks for government research.

Mansell and Moore were sentenced in February 2023 to one year of probation each and ordered to pay $3,300 each in restitution.

On Tuesday, an attorney for the divers told an 11th Circuit panel in Miami that the judge in the case did not give correct instructions to the jury, leaving jurors confused about the legal meaning of the word “steal” as it applied to the charge against his clients.

Arguing on behalf of Mansell and Moore, public defender Andrew Adler said the lower court should have told the jury that the government could not secure a guilty verdict unless it proved his clients took the fishing gear for their own use or benefit.

Adler argued that his clients “reasonably interfered” with the fishing line because they “reasonably believed” it was abandoned and illegally killing sharks. Disputing claims by prosecutors that the freshly baited line had a clearly marked buoy, the attorney told the panel there were no markings and that his clients were unaware the line was permitted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mansell and Moore encountered the fishing line while taking a group of tourists to snorkel with sharks. They pulled the line and buoy out of the water and into their boat, cut the sharks loose and called the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission to make a report.

“No ordinary person would think what the [defendants] did here was stealing," Adler told the panel.

An attorney for the government asked the appeals court to uphold the convictions. Jonathan Colan, a senior appellate attorney for the Justice Department, argued that jurors heard Mansell and Moore’s “innocent explanation” and were entitled to reject it.

But Adler argued that U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks did not satisfactorily explain to jurors the “felonious intent” necessary to elevate his clients’ actions to the level of a federal crime.

“When you’re taking property to resolve a life-or-death emergency, which the [defendants] were doing in this case, that is not stealing,” Adler said, adding that there was no evidence that his clients took the property to keep for themselves.

Jurors’ confusion over the legal definitions of words including “stealing,” “mistake,” and “bad purpose” caused them to send a total of seven notes to the judge during deliberations, Adler said. Jurors twice reported being deadlocked but were ordered to keep deliberating.

Colan argued that the jury’s questions merely showed they were trying to be “diligent.”

The two Trump-appointed judges on Tuesday’s panel, U.S. Circuit Judges Barbara Lagoa and Britt Grant, appeared to agree with Adler that the jury may not have been correctly instructed with respect to the divers’ state of mind.

Lagoa outright rejected Colan’s arguments that the definitions were clear, pointing out that Middlebrooks told jurors to rely on the ordinary meanings of “mistake” and “bad purpose” and did not provide clarification.

Colan told the panel that Mansell and Moore “acted with a bad purpose” to “entertain their guests and have more sharks available for their customers.”

Adler argued that Middlebrooks's refusal to provide the jury with more guidance led to an unfair verdict.

“Had the definitions been given, [Mansell and Moore] would have been acquitted,” Adler said.

The three-judge panel was rounded out by U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Bill Clinton appointee. The panel did not indicate when they will issue a ruling in the case.

Follow @KaylaGoggin_CNS
Categories / Appeals, Criminal, Environment, Regional

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