Man Pleads Guilty in Pennsylvania to Trafficking Protected Turtles
David Sommers pleaded guilty today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to trafficking protected turtles.
On July 10, 2018, a grand jury charged Sommers with smuggling a package containing diamondback terrapins to Canada and several Lacey Act offenses for mislabeling the package and trafficking turtles domestically. Sommers pleaded guilty to one felony count of violating the Lacey Act and agreed to forfeit nearly 3,500 diamondback terrapin hatchlings. The Lacey Act is the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute and prohibits falsely labeling packages containing wildlife, fish, or plants.
Sommers acknowledged that he falsely labeled and trafficked turtles taken from their New Jersey marsh habitat from Aug. 7, 2014, through Oct. 24, 2017. According to the plea agreement, Sommers admitted to sending a package to Canada in 2014 containing 11 terrapin hatchlings. Sommers mislabeled the package as a book and underreported its value to avoid detection by customs authorities. Wildlife authorities from Environment and Climate Change Canada intercepted the package.
Sommers faces a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, three years of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000, and restitution to New Jersey for the value of the turtles. The government agreed to dismiss the remaining charges against Sommers at sentencing, which is scheduled for May 15, 2019.
Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are a semi-aquatic species of turtle native to brackish waters in eastern and southern United States. They are not found in the wild in Pennsylvania, where Sommers resided, but have a dwindling habitat range in neighboring New Jersey. The terrapins are prized in the reptile pet trade for their unique, diamond-shaped shell markings. The turtles are protected under New Jersey law and by an international treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
The United States, Canada, and approximately 181 other countries are signatories to CITES, which provides a mechanism for regulating international trade in species whose continued survival is threatened by such trade. Due to declining populations, CITES listed the diamondback terrapin as threatened in 2013, and New Jersey banned collecting, possessing, and transporting them in 2016.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the investigation with assistance from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. The government is represented by Trial Attorney Ryan Connors of the Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan Burnes of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.