PHILADELPHIA – U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain announced that a Levittown, PA man was indicted today for trafficking in protected diamondback terrapins. David Sommers, 62, was charged with smuggling turtles and submitting false records for a package shipped to Canada. He was also indicted for four violations of the Lacey Act for trafficking over 3,500 turtles in interstate commerce.
The indictment alleges that throughout 2017, Sommers poached diamondback terrapins and their eggs from coastal marshes in New Jersey. He would then illegally sell the turtles in violation of the Lacey Act, the nation’s oldest wildlife trafficking statute. The Lacey Act makes it a federal crime to break the wildlife laws of any state, tribe, or foreign country and then move or trade the wildlife across U.S. borders. The indictment also charges that in 2014, Sommers smuggled turtles to Canada and falsely labeled the package by claiming it contained a book.
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 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.
Along with U.S. Attorney McSwain, today’s indictment was announced by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey H. Wood for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, and Acting Assistant Director Edward Grace of the Office of Law Enforcement for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“USFWS”).
If convicted, Sommers faces a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment on the smuggling charge and five years’ imprisonment for each of the Lacey Act violations (for a total of 35 years). The indictment also seeks to forfeit from Sommers all the turtles involved in the investigation.
This case was investigated by the USFWS with assistance from the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. It is being prosecuted by trial attorney Ryan Connors of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan E. Burnes.
An indictment is merely an allegation, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.