SACRAMENTO, CA; August 14, 2017: On the eve of a penalty trial in federal court, Pacific Legal Foundation today denounced federal prosecutors’ attempt to destroy family-owned Duarte Nursery with tens of millions of dollars in fines over harmless plowing on its own land.
“This is a life-or-death moment for a long-established business with hundreds of employees in the Central Valley,” said PLF Senior Attorney Tony Francois, who represents Hughson-based Duarte Nursery and its president, John Duarte, free of charge. “Federal prosecutors are asking for ruinous fines against Duarte Nursery and John Duarte personally, for plowing a field without permission from the Army Corps of Engineers. Yet we’re talking about shallow plowing that caused no harm and was done in the good faith, reasonable belief that it was entirely legal.
“If any fine is levied for what was at worst an innocent misunderstanding, it should be nominal,” Francois continued. “Instead, prosecutors and agency officials are asking for a staggering $2.8 million — plus tens of millions in payments to a wetlands bank. These incredible sums would close Duarte Nursery and put its 500-plus workers on the street.
“The court must impose sanity on this situation and reject these extremist demands,” he said. “Government bureaucrats cannot be allowed to destroy a productive business and the futures of hundreds of employees and their families, over conduct that was — and will be proven on appeal to be — legal at the time and which did not harm the environment.”
The penalty trial, scheduled to last several weeks, begins tomorrow, August 15, at 9:00 a.m. PDT. It will take place at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, before U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller.
The penalty trial is required because Judge Mueller earlier ruled against Duarte on the merits of the case, holding that the company wrongly plowed a wheat field in Tehama County without seeking a federal wetlands permit. Duarte will appeal that decision, because it conflicts with the statute and related regulations that explicitly protect farming from Clean Water Act permitting requirements. But first, in the penalty trial, Duarte is vigorously opposing the unjustified fines being sought.
Immediately before the trial is set to start, the judge will consider Duarte’s motion to dismiss the case altogether, on the grounds that only the Environmental Protection Agency — not the Army Corps — has authority to bring this action against the nursery, and EPA chose not to do so.
But if the court allows the litigation to continue, Duarte is asking that any penalty be symbolic — a simple $1 assessment, as the Clean Water Act allows in situations where no harm was intended or done. “John has no history of disobeying the Clean Water Act, and he reasonably believed he was complying in this case,” noted Francois. “This was normal plowing, the kind done every day by farmers across the country. And there was no harm to the environment. In short, there’s no call for any punishment whatsoever — let alone outrageous fines that would write a funeral notice for this respected farming business and the jobs of its workers.”
“Pacific Legal Foundation promotes individual liberty by defending victims of government overreach and abuse,” said PLF President and CEO Steven D. Anderson. “Our fight on behalf of John, his co-owners, and their hundreds of employees shows just how vital our mission is, and how fragile our rights can be.”
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Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 39 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 12 victories out of 14 cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.