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Activist threw a fisherman's catch back into the lake. Now, he has to pay.

JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times Animal activist Michael Leaming listens to his lawyer Peri Sedigh argue for his defense in Pinellas County court Friday, Nov. 16, 2018.  Last year Leaming and members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, protested inside a Pinellas Park Chick-fil-A before confronting a family fishing at Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg.  The fisherman, Robert Hope, had just caught a tilapia when Leaming was filmed yelling at him and throwing the fish back into the lake.  He was charged with ‘interfering with lawful taking of game or fish,’ but that was changed the day before the trial to petit theft, both a second degree misdemeanor.
JAMES BORCHUCK | Times Animal activist Michael Leaming listens to his lawyer Peri Sedigh argue for his defense in Pinellas County court Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Last year Leaming and members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, protested inside a Pinellas Park Chick-fil-A before confronting a family fishing at Crescent Lake in St. Petersburg. The fisherman, Robert Hope, had just caught a tilapia when Leaming was filmed yelling at him and throwing the fish back into the lake. He was charged with ‘interfering with lawful taking of game or fish,’ but that was changed the day before the trial to petit theft, both a second degree misdemeanor.
Published Nov. 16, 2018

CLEARWATER — A dying fish was flopping on a hot deck. An animal activist called throwing it back in the water an act of kindness. The state called it theft.

The value of St. Petersburg's most internet famous flying fish? About $6.

Now, Michael Leaming will have to pay a $500 fine and court costs after a judge found him guilty of depriving Robert Hope of his dinner by launching a tilapia into Crescent Lake in July 2017.

A video of the exchange in Crescent Lake Park went viral and was reposted to various social media platforms around the world, racking up millions of views.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission referred the case to the State Attorney's Office. At first, the state charged Leaming with "interference with taking of fish."

But late Thursday, a day before the non-jury trial in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, the state changed its charge to petit theft.

Prosecutors discovered the interference charge is only for state waters, not a city-owned property like Crescent Lake, said State Attorney spokesman Frank Piazza. The other two charges the commission had recommended were battery, for taking the fish from under the foot of Hope's wife, and petit theft. The theft charge seemed more appropriate, Piazza said.

Hope planned to cook the fish for dinner that night. A fish and wildlife investigator testified that, by the size of the fish and the price per pound of tilapia, the fish was worth about $6.

The incident happened on a chaotic day in Pinellas County when animal activists, including the Leaming family, caused a scene inside a Pinellas Park Chick-fil-A. Their goal was to spread the message that "it's not food, it's violence."

After that fracas, the Leamings said they headed to Crescent Lake Park and were discussing other matters. Then, they said, Landon Leaming, now 10, saw Hope and his son fishing from a concrete platform at the lake.

Hope caught a tilapia and realized he had forgotten the bucket he normally uses to hold his catch, he testified, so he asked his son Christopher to go back to the car and fetch it. Landon Leaming saw the fish flopping on the concrete deck and asked his father if he could say something to them.

"I told him not to worry about it, let them be," Leaming testified Friday. But his son was upset so he let him approach the men and say, "Did you know that fish feel pain?"

Michael Leaming followed up, asking, what if it was a dog, or a human child on the concrete? The fisherman kept trying to shrug him off. But Hope's wife, Brenda Hope, stepped in. She stood over the fish as she tried to unravel a fish stringer, used to submerge fish in the water. Leaming bent over and grabbed the fish and threw it back into the water, shouting, "Call the police! I just saved a fish's life, how about that? How about that?"

Prosecutors played the video in the courtroom and Landon Leaming watched intently, at one point leaning forward on his elbows as his father said, "You guys just going to let this fish die like this?"

In his closing argument, prosecutor Joshua Foutz noted that many fishermen simply leave their fish on the deck until they are done for the day and that "this was nothing more than a show for (Leaming's) political beliefs."

But defense attorney Peri Sedigh said, "This wasn't theft, this was a rescue."

Judge Robert Dittmer acknowledged that people get passionate about issues, but said the state has granted fishermen the right to fish the waters. He noted that commercial fisherman often put their catch on ice immediately, where the fish are left to die. He feared letting the door open on this could lead to sabotage of fishing vessels.

Dittmer withheld adjudication so Leaming's record is clear. He also didn't impose probation as the state had requested. Leaming could have been sentenced to 60 days in jail, six months probation and mandatory counseling.

After the trial, Leaming said he was happy he won't have a guilty verdict but felt it was unfair to suddenly have to face a theft charge when they had prepared for the interference claim. He was sure he would have won that.

"I'm glad that my dad's not guilty," Landon Leaming said. "I felt sad that it was happening to this fish and I wanted to help the fish."

Several vegan and animal rights supporters came to the trial. Though they weren't involved in the protest that day, PETA has supported the Leamings.

"Any kind person would stop to help a dog who was gasping for air on hot pavement, and when it comes to the ability to feel pain and fear, a fish is no different from a dog, a cat, or a human being," PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said in a statement.

Times staff writer Christopher Spata contributed to this report. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com. Follow @SharonKWn.

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