Five years after hundreds of turtles were taken from the backyard of amateur herpetologist Steve Santhuff in Lawrenceville, GA, he sought justice and $2 million in damages in a federal lawsuit alleging that his civil rights were violated when the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service entered his property without a search warrant to see if he had protected species in his possession.
A jury found in the plaintiff’s favor and awarded him $88,500 in combined compensatory and punitive damages.
Judge Thomas W. Thrash of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia presided over the trial of retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Gary Phillips and Michael Bloxom, an Alabama wildlife enforcement officer deputized as a federal agent in Operation Snapper, a Santuff-inspired initiative to stop the illegal trafficking of alligator snapping turtles from Louisiana that began to take shape back in 2001.
As part of Operation Snapper, Santhuff, who had often worked as a confidential informant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, agreed to make an authorized buy of endangered map turtles from an alleged turtle trafficker with money Phillips sent him. But the dealer turned out to be an undercover agent from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Santhuff bought the turtles as directed, but Phillips was in no hurry to receive them or the audio tape Santhuff had made of the transaction. Santhuff continued to care for the turtles. It was these map turtles that Phillips and Bloxom claimed they came to pick up at Santhuff”s home July 14, 2005. According to Philllips, an informant had told him that Santhuff might have protected species of turtles. Phillips hoped that he would get access to Santhuff’s backyard to take a look when he came to pick up the turtles Santhuff believed he had bought in a sting.
Santhuff alleged that the agents trespassed on his property while he was on vacation and photographed the backyard, where he kept more than 500 turtles in tanks. The photos, obtained without a warrant, were used against him in court. They showed that in his collection was an alligator snapping turtle, which Santhuff had owned for years before it was designated as a protected species.
On a later date, the agents returned with an arrest warrant and also seized more than 500 turtles. Santhuff faced 21 charges of wildlife endangerment–later reduced to 17. He could have spent more than 21 years in prison, but a Gwinnett County jury acquitted him of all charges in February 2008.
Most of the confiscated turtles died of improper care while in custody at wildlife centers in Georgia and South Carolina. Some have been returned to Santhuff, but many of them were in poor condition. They are valued at as much as $350 apiece.