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Legal winds keep blowing, he just keeps spitting into it

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2003

Nick Cohoon is a fairly big guy with shoulder-length, orange-reddish hair, though it is fading now to match the full gray beard that reaches down to his chest. He is 55 or maybe 56, he tells me over breakfast. He says he has been a commercial fisherman in these parts for 20 years, making a living "close to poverty level" by cast-netting mullet, perch and so forth.

It is not mullet, however, but higher legal principle that is the subject of our morning talk. Cohoon jabs a finger at the words of the Florida Constitution on the table between us.

"The Constitution," he says with passion, "is a LIMIT on power! Not a granting of it!"

You can tell that Cohoon is the kind of guy whom cops, court clerks and judges consider a big pain. They keep citing him for various boating and fishing violations and he keeps suing them. State regulators know his name well. The St. Petersburg city attorney's office knows his name. Recently he sued 53 cities around Florida, and now they know it, too.

After long hours in law libraries over the years, and many more doing research with the used computer he bought for $265, Cohoon is convinced that Florida's cities have little power to regulate his living. That's the province of the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, he figures.

Local governments can restrict fishing from their municipal property, but only for health and safety reasons, Cohoon says. Certainly, a mere city can't tell a fisherman how big a net to use, or where not to fish.

And yet, to Cohoon's sputtering frustration, Florida's cities and counties have all kinds of regulations about saltwater fishing. He showed me a big stack of them, ordinances from St. Petersburg, Gulfport, Port Richey and so forth. These local laws deal with everything from net sizes to local bans.

From time to time, somebody actually listens to Cohoon's legal argument. When that happens, the high school dropout with a GED sometimes wins.

In 1996, for example, Cohoon deliberately got himself ticketed off Demens Landing in St. Petersburg by throwing a cast net in front of a police officer. Then he sued the city. Senior Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Helen Hansel ruled in Cohoon's favor.

Last year Cohoon, whose full name is Clifford Nicholas Cohoon, even got a favorable finding from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It was titled, IN RE: PETITION OF CLIFFORD CAHOON (sic) FOR DECLARATORY STATEMENT CONCERNING LOCAL GOVERNMENT REGULATION OF FISHING, Order No. EO02-02.

The statement said that until the commission says otherwise, cities are limited to the usual health and safety matters, and not to other regulation of saltwater fishing itself.

Yet with this declaration, did the heavens open? Did church bells peal? Did Florida's cities, confronted with Nick Cohoon's victory, slap their foreheads in dismay and rush to wipe their local ordinances off the books?

They did not.

More frustrated than ever, Cohoon went back to the Internet. He found the city codes of at least 110 waterfront cities online, and what he considered to be 70 offending ordinances. At that rate, he figured there had to be more than 100 violators around the state.

Next he filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court. It cost him $150 to file, and another $300 to make photocopies and mail it to all 53 named cities. But the federal judge threw Cohoon's lawsuit right out.

Cohoon does not consider the matter fairly handled. "Anyone who can overlook more than 100 illegal acts," he says, "is an idiot."

That's the other thing. Not being a silver-tongued diplomat, Cohoon has not been gentle or agreeable in pressing his case. He gave me 18 e-mails he has sent to Gov. Jeb Bush on the issue. "Try to shed and/or rise above your incompetence," he instructed the governor in one. For whatever reason, the governor has not replied yet.

Unlike many an amateur lawyer, Cohoon often uses the legal lingo correctly. His new plan is to ask the Florida Supreme Court to issue a "writ of mandamus" against the governor. His theory is that the governor has the sworn duty to correct illegal municipal acts, and so he can be forced by court order to do so. I told Nick Cohoon, well, good luck.

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