Fishermen Turned Medical Students Settle Civil Rights Case Against Washington

Jan 22, 2016

Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife will formally acknowledge Friday that it violated the constitutional rights of two brothers who commercially fished the Columbia River.

The agency’s admission of wrongdoing is part of a settlement in a lawsuit that has changed agency practices. It stems from a traffic stop nearly nine years ago in rural southwest Washington.

The traffic stop happened on the morning of March 23, 2007. The location was tiny Wahkiakum County across the Columbia River from Astoria. It was captured on video.

Filming from inside a crew cab pickup truck was the Tarabochia family: Father Joe, 20-year old son Matthew, and 17-year old twins Alex and Bryan. Outside the truck were several officers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. They demanded that the Tarabochias get out of the vehicle. The family refused to budge until the county sheriff or undersheriff showed up.

This roadside standoff followed a morning of fishing on the Columbia. The Tarabochias had a load of salmon the WDFW wanted to inspect. The family had led officers on a slow-speed chase before they were finally boxed in.

Legal fish, illegal stop

These officers and the Tarabochias knew each other well. There was a lot of history and bad blood between them. Now, it was coming to a head. The standoff lasted more than 13 minutes. At one point in the video, a Fish and Wildlife captain is seen pulling out a collapsible baton. He said he’d break the window if they didn’t get out.

It ended when the undersheriff arrived -- someone the Tarabochias trusted. They unlocked the doors to the truck and the officers quickly detained the family.

Driver Matthew Tarabochia and his father Joe were jailed for resisting arrest and obstruction. Those charges were later dismissed. The fish the Tarabochias were transporting that day were all legal.

In 2010 the Tarabochias filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the traffic stop. The family argued the Fish and Wildlife officers had no right to pull them over to do a fish check without reason to believe a crime had been committed. They lost in U.S. District Court, but successfully appealed to the 9th Circuit.

Matthew said the appellate decision on their Fourth Amendment claim was vindicating especially after what the family calls a “campaign of harassment” by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“No one believes you when you say the police did something unfair to you,” Matthew said. “When you say that people automatically assume you that did something wrong and you’re just trying to cover it up.”

'They know they’re going to be inspected'

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife denies it targeted the Tarabochias. Steve Crown, the current chief of the agency’s law enforcement division, said regular contact with fish police is part and parcel of being a commercial fisherman.

“It is common knowledge amongst commercial fishermen that they’re going to be inspected,” Crown said. “There’s high dollars, high stakes. When you’re engaged in commercial fishing practices you can have huge impacts on a particular species of fish and they know that.”

But Crown said as a result of this case, his officers have ended a longstanding practice of pulling vehicles over on the road for fish checks.

“We’ve told our officers ‘hey, don’t make those kinds of traffic stops unless you have reasonable suspicion to do so,” Crown said.

Officers can still do those checks on the water and at the landing area. The Tarabochias recently settled their lawsuit against the agency for $130,000. In addition to the payment, Fish and Wildlife agreed to acknowledge it violated Matthew and Alex’s rights -- for technical reasons they were the only family members named in the appeal to the 9th Circuit.

'My family’s name is kind of tarnished'

Many years have passed since that roadside standoff in Wahkiakum County. The Fish and Wildlife captain in the video is now a deputy chief. The Tarabochia family is no longer in the fishing business. The boys moved away. Alex doesn’t think he’ll come back.

“I’m not sure I would go home,” he said. “I feel to some extent like my name and my family’s name is kind of tarnished and sort of like there’s a stigma around it to where I’m not sure that I would ever have kind of an even playing field.”

Even though he would be coming home as a doctor. Alex is currently attending medical school at Dartmouth in New Hampshire as a rural health scholar. Matthew also in med school -- at Harvard.

Alex said he always knew he would go into medicine. But Matthew said what happened between his family and the authorities on the Columbia River influenced his decision to leave the fishing business behind.