On Remand, Trial Court Must Consider Whether Federal Mining Law Preempts California’s Moratorium on Suction Dredge Mining

In the recently published decision of The People v. Rinehart (Oct. 8, 2014) Case No. C074662, the Third District Court of Appeal considered whether criminal enforcement provisions of the Fish and Game Code addressing suction dredge mining are preempted by federal law. Although the court did not conclude that California’s ban on dredge and suction mining is preempted, the court left open the possibility that it is.

Section 5653 of the Fish and Game Code requires those operating vacuum or suction dredge mining equipment to obtain a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A permit may be issued if the Department determines the proposed suction dredge mining “will not be deleterious to fish.”

In 2009, the Governor signed Senate Bill 670, prohibiting the Department from issuing new permits under 5653, and imposing a statewide moratorium on instream suction dredge mining until the Department has undertaken the conditions required by Fish and Game Code section 5653.1. Under that provision, the Department must satisfy numerous requirements, including environmental review of the standing 1994 suction dredge mining regulations, before the moratorium is lifted.

This case began when the District Attorney of Plumas County filed a criminal complaint against Defendant Rinehart alleging that he violated Fish and Game Code section 5653 by operating suction dredge mining equipment in waters closed to that type of equipment. Rinehart demurred to the complaint and argued that Fish and Game Code sections 5653 and 5653.1 operated together to create a de facto ban on suction dredge mining in California. Rinehart reasoned that this de facto ban was an unconstitutional interference with his federally-protected mining rights under the Mining Act of 1872. The trial court overruled the demurrer, holding that Fish and Game Codes sections 5653 and 5653.1 were not preempted by federal law. The trial court thereafter convicted Rinehart for possessing and using vacuum and suction dredge equipment without a permit. Rinehart appealed.

The Court of Appeal reversed and remanded the case to the trial court for further consideration of the preemption issue. In an opinion authored by Justice Hull, the court explained the constitutional principles at play, noting that Congress has authority over the regulation of federal lands under the United States Constitution Property Clause. But not all state regulation of federal land is preempted under the Property Clause. States are free to enforce state criminal and civil law on federal lands so long as the state law does not conflict with the “operation or objectives of federal law.” In this case, the Mining Act of 1872 sets forth the federal government’s stance on mining and mineral exploration on federal land. The act encourages surveying and mining for valuable minerals, and if a private citizen perfects a claim in compliance with the act, the claimant secures exclusive right of possession (but not title) and use of the claim.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the factual record before it insufficient to reach a decision. Instead, the court identified two discrete issues for the trial court to address on remand: (1) Does Fish and Game Code section 5653.1 operate to prohibit the issuance of permits required by section 5653; and if so, (2) does this prohibition on dredge mining permits render the defendant’s exercise of federal mining rights impracticable? Although the court remanded the issue to the trial court for further consideration, the decision nevertheless represents a considerable victory for proponents of dredge mining in the state.