Wildlife Trafficking – Operation Viper

January 20, 2023 Criminal Defense

The state of Florida has organizations in place to protect its nature and wildlife. Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has recently been the head of a two year-long investigation into the black market of snake dealing, which has resulted in multiple arrests and criminal charges.

This article will provide the case details along with information on all the relevant criminal charges in Florida.

Example Case – Operation Viper

Eight people have been arrested in part of an illegal trafficking ring over the sale of venomous snakes. According to the report, the FWC began its investigation in 2020 after receiving multiple reports about a black market for the sale and purchase of extremely venomous snakes in Florida.

The investigation found that illicit dealers were receiving large imports of venomous snakes from other countries around the world. If any of the snakes had escaped or been released into the wild, it could have caused a huge negative impact on Florida’s native wildlife. It could have also been highly dangerous to Florida citizens.

Several FWC officers went undercover during the two year-long investigation to determine the extent of the alleged illegal activity. The undercover officers infiltrated the black market and found nearly 200 nonnative snakes made up from 24 different species from seven regions across the world. Some of the species FWC uncovered include:

  • Inland Taipan
  • Bushmaster
  • Rhinoceros Viper
  • African Bush Viper
  • Gaboon Viper
  • Green Mamba
  • Eyelash Viper
  • Spitting Cobra
  • Forest Cobra
  • Puff Adder
  • Saw-Scaled Viper

Through the investigation, officers managed to arrange in-person meetings with the people selling the dangerous snakes. The dealer sold the deadly or potentially deadly snakes to the undercover officers, despite them stating they did not obtain a valid license for the snakes. The FWC found that several dealers were a part of wholesale imports of large shipments filled with non-native snakes from other regions.

The FWC states that there is a significant public threat posed by the unlawful sale, purchase, or transport of regulated animals. It also undermines the wildlife dealers who operate on a legal level. In addition, these actions could have resulted in the nonnative venomous snakes getting out and breeding together—which could result in a new population in Florida’s subtropical climate.

The following is a statement from FWC’s Investigation Section Captain Van Barrow:

“During this investigation, officers saw and heard disturbing evidence of widespread illegal activity, not the least of which were individuals who indicated that they were releasing or planning to release prohibited reptiles into nearby native habitat to establish a readily accessible breeding population.”

In total, eight people were arrested in relation to the illegal snake trafficking scheme. Captain Barrow claimed the investigators witnessed disturbing evidence of more illegal activity aside from snake trafficking. Several of those arrested received additional charges like child neglect, possession of a prohibited animal, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, illegal wildlife trafficking values between $7.8 billion and $10 billion each year. From a global standpoint, trafficking wildlife ranks only fourth behind drugs, weapons, and humans.

“Some of the individuals apprehended by this operation are established dealers of snakes,” said FWC Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto. “Our law enforcement officers will continue to hold accountable those who disregard the rules which protect our natural resources of the state.”

Child Neglect Charges

When a person is accused of child neglect in Florida, it means that they have failed as a caregiver to provide a minor with the proper care, supervision, and means necessary to maintain the child’s mental and physical health. This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Shelter
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Nutrition
  • Medical Needs
  • Supervision

Child neglect charges can arise from patterns of repeated conduct or from a single incident. For the circumstances to be considered “child abuse” it implies the intentional infliction of mental or physical injury on a child, or an intentional act that could result in mental or physical injury to a child.

Florida Statute Section 827.03 explains that a standard child neglect charge in which the defendant did not cause great bodily harm or permanent disfigurement can be charged with a third-degree felony. A third-degree felony has penalties of up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison. If the defendant did cause great bodily harm or permanent disfigurement, the charges can be enhanced to a second-degree felony. A second-degree felony has penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

Violations under Florida’s FWC

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation (FWC) has laws and regulations in place when it comes to keeping the State’s wildlife safe. According to their site, the FWC states that “in order to assure humane treatment of captive wildlife, no person, firm, corporation or association shall be in possession of captive wildlife for public display unless a permit has been obtained.”

Under the FWC, there is a list of penalties set in place for any person who violates the law regarding fish and wildlife in Florida. The various laws cover the possession, molestation, and transportation of native and nonnative wildlife. The penalties can range from civil penalties to felony offenses. The following is a list of FWC regulations and penalties relevant to the example case:

Nonnative and Captive Wildlife Penalties

  • Florida Statute Section 379.231 explains that it is unlawful for any person to import, release, or sell any nonnative species from the animal kingdom into the state of Florida. Violating this law can result in a Level Three A Level Three violation results in a first-degree misdemeanor. A first-degree misdemeanor has penalties of up to a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

If the accused person has had a previous Level Three conviction or higher in the last 10 years, they will also be required to pay a mandatory minimum fine of $750, along with a permanent revocation of all wildlife licenses and permits.

  • Illegal Killing, Possessing, or Capturing of AlligatorsFlorida Statute Section 379.409 states that it is unlawful for any person to possess, capture, injure, kill, or attempt to kill an alligator or other crocodilian species. It is also unlawful to possess, capture, injure, or kill the eggs of an alligator or other crocodilian. Violating this law can result in a Level Four A Level Four violation results in a third-degree felony. A third-degree felony has penalties of up to a $5,000 fine and up to five years in prison. In addition to the criminal penalties, any person convicted of capturing alligators may have all of their equipment confiscated by the commission.

To view more regulations and violations under the FWC, please refer to their page here.

Possession of a Firearm by a Convicted Felon

Florida has strict laws when it comes to convicted felons and the possession of firearms. Under Florida Statute Section 790.23, it is unlawful for any person to own, possess, or in any way control a firearm, ammunition, or electronic device or weapon if they fit the following:

  • Convicted of a felony in a Florida court;
  • Defendant is younger than 24 and committed a delinquent act that would be considered a felony if by an adult;
  • Convicted of a felony crime against the U.S. which is considered a felony offense;
  • Defendant is younger than 24 and committed a delinquent act in another state or territory that would be a felony if by an adult and served a prison sentence longer than one year; or
  • Convicted of an offense that would be a felony in Florida and served a prison sentence longer than one year.

A convicted felon who falls into any of the above listed categories and is caught in the possession of a firearm can be charged with a second-degree felony. A second-degree felony has penalties of up to a $10,000 fine and up to 15 years in prison.

Important: The above section does not apply to any convicted felons who have had their civil rights and firearm authority restored, or a person who has had their criminal record expunged. However, the process of restoring firearm authority is not guaranteed if your civil rights have been restored through expungement. To read more on expungement and firearm authority, read the Clemency overview.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

When a Florida citizen is charged with a criminal offense, it may leave them feeling as if they have no options. In a case such as the one above where there are multiple violations of the law, it is especially important to work with an experienced Florida criminal defense attorney in your area. Don Pumphrey and his legal team at Pumphrey Law Firm have spent years representing clients for various charges. Our team is prepared to put in the time and effort to work toward your freedom. Receive a free consultation regarding your case today by contacting us at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message on our website.

Written by Karissa Key

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