At Garden City Beach, where no one seemed to hurry, the first indication of trouble was the staccato rumble of footsteps on the stairs. A sharp knock at the door came next. And when 86-year-old Betty Mincey opened up she faced law officers wearing guns. Three men, two from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and a federal agent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had come to investigate the report of a dead dolphin taken in a net in front of the Mincey house that morning, Nov. 3, 2013. Yes, her husband C.P. was home, she told the officers. He was down below on the beach fishing with his grandson. With that news, the officers hurried back down the stairs and onto the strand in front of 939 Waccamaw Avenue in Garden City. There they found Mincey, an 86-year-old WWII U.S. Navy veteran, surf fishing with his grandson and great grandson.
In the next two hours the officers questioned Mincey, examined his current South Carolina fishing license, measured the legal gill net he had used the previous night to catch a batch of small fish and informed him that he had broken federal law. According to the officers Mincey violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act which cites the illegal taking of a dolphin as a federal offense punishable by fine. The accompanying S.C. DNR officer told him he had also broken state laws in setting and observing the net.
Mincey’s explanation that he had made no attempt to take the dolphin found earlier that morning in his lightweight mesh net did not appear to matter to the officers. For 40 years he and his family had put out the net to catch pan-sized frying fish without incident, Mincey told the investigators. Again, they seemed unmoved. And the fact that the dolphin was one of at least 430 that had already washed ashore on the East Coast that year afflicted with a deadly virus did not deter the officers from citing Mincey for allegedly killing the dolphin.
When the notice of a $6500 federal fine came by registered letter in early 2014, Mincey’s case seemed a lost cause. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), represented by its powerful law enforcement division, had an outstanding record over the years of winning its cases against fishing captains, seafood companies and commercial fishing interests. What chance did a lone farmer from rural Marion County have against the might of the federal government?
It was at this point that the accused almost always paid the fine. But Mincey was different. As a rural farm boy he and his impoverished family members had literally clawed themselves out of the depths of America’s Great Depression. Then he served his country in war as a U.S. Navy ship’s gunner. He had become a self-reliant, proud, hardworking man, sometimes stubborn to a fault. He had not broken the law, he believed, and for an individual who had never had a single runin with the authorities of any kind, he didn’t want his lifelong record of good citizenship spoiled. So he turned to LaFon LeGette, an attorney from Latta, S.C. LeGette, who also happened to be Mincey’s son-inlaw, had been practicing law for more than 40 years when he took the case. In those four decades he had a superb record before juries in the South Carolina border counties of Dillon, Marion and Marlboro. And for 23 of those years he had also served as the county public defender, representing clients successfully in a wide variety of criminal cases.
Government attorneys offered Mincey a deal: Pay the fine quickly and get a ten percent discount. To him this was an insult and he chose a federal court hearing at Georgetown, S.C., in the summer of 2014. There, LeGette and his co-counsel Alan Berry vigorously contested the charge against Mincey. LeGette had been on the case from the start. By telephone that first day he advised the NOAA investigating officer he needed a warrant before seizing any of Mincey’s property at Garden City. But the officer rejected the advice and seized the net and documents without a warrant. That would prove a pivotal issue in the hearing months later when, in a surprise development midway the courtroom proceedings, the attorney representing NOAA admitted the seizure was improper. That the NOAA investigator lacked the authority under the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to seize Mincey’s property.
A similar admission of improper seizure would have probably prompted a dismissal before the small-town juries in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region where LeGette normally worked. But not in the dolphin case. Thus, the government attorneys pushed on in the prosecution of Mincey despite other self-inflicted evidence problems. For example, a prosecution witness described the dolphin that floated into Mincey’s net as being about six-feet-long. But the government report on the examination of a dolphin later found on the beach recorded the length as nearly eight feet. And the chart which purported to simulate the movement of a floating dolphin found a mile down the beach was one constructed by the Coast Guard to predict the track of a dead human, not a marine mammal.
The hearing ended July 15, 2014, in what looked to be a standoff. LeGette had made his points but NOAA had a witness who saw a dead dolphin in Mincey’s net. That alone amounted to a violation of the law, the investigating officer had informed the Minceys. A review of hundreds of previous NOAA cases revealed that the benefit of the doubt usually went to the government when a ruling came down.
But when Federal Administrative Law Judge Christine Coughlin issued her decision in January 2015 she found for C.P. Mincey and against the government, citing the various discrepancies in NOAA’s case. The Minceys were unaware at the time how rare it was for anyone to successfully oppose NOAA in court. A subsequent review of 1,100 case summaries on the NOAA website showed that the South Carolina farmer was apparently the only private fisherman charged by NOAA for lethally taking a dolphin in the March 2010 to July 2017 reporting period. And he was one of only a handful of individuals and commercial businesses to win their cases over the previous seven years.
Mincey was supported throughout the 15 months of his legal battle by an unusual collection of friends and family, many of them from the little town of Nichols, S.C., in rural Marion County. They attended the hearing to support him and joined in a rousing victory celebration following the judge’s ruling. The ‘Nichols Crowd’, as the group was dubbed in court, thus became a part of local lore, an underdog story about the lone Navy veteran and his slow-talking country lawyer who whipped a powerful federal government agency in court.
I invite you to now turn the page and follow the dolphin story from its beginnings at Garden City Beach to the victory party and afterwards. I hope you will find The Farmer And The Dolphin at its heart a message to law officers and government officials alike that they must be fair and open with the public they serve. That justice tempered with the application of common sense is the American way. That government agencies work for the people, not against them, and must treat individuals with respect. As this story shows, anything less is unacceptable in these United States.
William S. Walker
Fork Retch, S.C., June 2018