Minnows land Ohio man in local court

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 30, 2002

Truck driver Gary Kolla of Akron, Ohio, had no idea why he was stopped by a vehicle with flashing lights. He never thought he would wind up in the county jail, have his truck seized, be charged $28,800 in bail and wind up prosecuted for 12 counts of state law violations.

His misfortune stemmed from the load he carried. It was minnows &045; highly regulated merchandise in Minnesota.

Kolla brought his misdemeanor case to a trial that finished Wednesday, questioning the constitutionality of state regulations that landed him in jail for minnow violations. While the laws are designed to protect the state’s wildlife from the introduction of new species or diseases, Kolla wonders why his minnows &045; which would never have left their containers &045; posed a threat.

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It happened on Sept. 27, 2000. Kolla was driving on Freeborn County Road 26, headed to Interstate 90 to get back to his hometown, where his daughter was getting married two days later, when he was pulled over by a DNR conservation officer acting on a tip.

The law requires every non-resident commercial minnow hauler passing through the state to have a permit issued by the DNR. The permit must indicate the point of entry into the state and the route, and is valid for only 12 hours.

Since 1988, Kolla had been shuttling between aquatic farms in South Dakota and a wholesale bait company in Akron. Until the moment he was notified about the violation, Kolla said he did not know there was such a regulation.

&uot;This is not what the U.S. Constitution envisioned,&uot; defense attorney William Peterson said in court this week. &uot;The states could dry up interstate commerce and make a legitimate business like wholesale bait a wholly unprofitable enterprise.&uot;

The minnow industry in Minnesota involves 1,800 businesses, generating $42 million a year.

Steven Hirsch, assistant director of the DNR’s fishery division, said concerns about disease and exotic species hiding with the minnows underlie the regulation. Expenditures on sport fishing accounts for $1.9 billion annually in Minnesota, and the department wants to protect the industry.

&uot;The Legislature is designed to regulate, as even-handedly as possible, its legitimate state interests in protecting our fisheries,&uot; Prosecutor Karin McBride said, defending the state. She said that the spread of disease or foreign infestation by a variety of species would have significant impacts on the state’s aquatic resources.

A little twist in Kolla’s case is that he stopped at a minnow-holding facility in Hayward to add 175 gallons of minnows. The prosecutor says this constitutes an export, which requires another permit for a $675 annual fee.

But the defense asserted that those minnows were also from South Dakota, but were held in Hayward for a couple of days to be transported.

&uot;Aquatic livestock raised in South Dakota for shipment to Ohio is private property over which the commissioner of the DNR has no jurisdiction to intercept,&uot; Peterson said in his deposition. &uot;There is no way (the transported minnows) can affect minnows raised in the wild in Minnesota, nor do they affect Minnesota lakes or streams.&uot;

Witnesses from Minnesota, South Dakota and Ohio testified in the four-day trial. The parties will now exchange written statements and meet again in September before the judge makes a decision.