U.S. District Court Yakima

FILE — The William O. Douglas U.S. Courthouse in Yakima.

A 71-year-old Yakama Nation man won’t go to prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to selling illegally taken fish and wildlife.

However, Simon Lee Sampson of Toppenish will be on probation for four years as U.S. District Judge Stanley Bastian on Wednesday went beyond defense attorneys’ recommendation for two years of probation. Federal prosecutors sought a six-month prison term on the two felony charges. Bastian could have sentenced Sampson to a year in prison, according to sentencing range guidelines.

Sampson was indicted in May 2018 on four counts — one of sale of wildlife, two of sale of fish and one of conspiracy to sell fish/wildlife, all with a market value in excess of $350 and all “in violation of and in a manner unlawful under the laws and regulations of the Yakama Nation Revised Law and Order Code,” court documents said. He was accused of illegally taking and commercially selling fish during subsistence-only and ceremonial-only fishing seasons.

Following the plea agreement he accepted in late April, Bastian dismissed the two counts of sale of fish in violation of tribal laws. Sampson won’t be fined, but must pay $4,930 in agreed-upon restitution for the value of the fish and wildlife and a $200 special fee.

Bastian admitted during Sampson’s sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Yakima that the case of Sampson, a well-known community member and youth advocate who is outspoken about his treaty rights to fish and hunt on traditional Yakama lands, “has been troubling for me.” Bastian said he changed his mind several times as he pondered the case over the last few weeks.

“I see no reason to sentence a 71-year-old man” to prison, Bastian said of Sampson, who has been on pretrial release since he surrendered to authorities and was indicted. At the same time, Bastian said he didn’t think the sentence of two years’ probation requested by Sampson’s attorneys, Paul Shelton and Jennifer Barnes, was enough.

He allowed Sampson to continue fishing and hunting when it is legal, saying he would take Sampson “at your word you’ll follow the rules,” Bastian said.

Sampson, whose income is from Social Security and a pension, said he would. “I’m selling salmon. That’s my livelihood,” Sampson said.

Though he disagreed with prosecution by federal authorities, stressing along with other supporters that he should have faced charges in tribal court instead, Sampson said he would follow Bastian’s decision after the judge asked him what he thought the court should do.

“I will honor any sentence handed down. ... I’m here at the mercy of the court,” Sampson said.

In pleading guilty, he admitted that at certain times from August 2015 through November 2016, he sold illegally taken fish and wildlife, which included 27 sturgeon, 11 chinook salmon, 200 pounds of smelt and five deer in violation of Yakama Nation Fisheries Code and Yakama Nation Wildlife Code and, thus, the Lacey Act.

Passed in 1900, the federal Lacey Act declares “it is unlawful to import, export, sell, acquire, or purchase fish, wildlife or plants that are taken, possessed, transported, or sold ... in violation of U.S. or Indian law,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Federal prosecutor Meghan McCalla, who sought a prison term of six months followed by three years of supervised release, argued that Sampson illegally trafficked fish and wildlife multiple times. In statements Wednesday, McCalla stressed again that Sampson pleaded guilty in Oregon in 2017 to essentially “the same type of activity” and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

In sentencing Sampson, Bastian said he considered that. He also took into account Sampson’s civic contributions and strong support of his family and traditional Yakama ways, which Sampson’s attorneys noted in their sentencing memorandum.

“Mr. Sampson has impacted many lives in his 71 years. He has raised a family. He has been active in his communities, including forming the Community Safety Network to help make his community a safer place to live,” court documents state. “He is an elder of the Yakama Nation, providing mentorship and guidance to younger members of the tribe.”

Along with their sentencing memorandum, Sampson’s attorneys submitted a 10-minute video during which Sampson spoke along with three supporters: John Cerna, superintendent of the Toppenish School District; Emily Washines, Yakama scholar and historian; and JoDe Goudy, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council.

“He carries significant struggles with his health. I’m hoping for some leniency,” Goudy said.

Sampson spoke briefly in the two-hour sentencing, stressing again his rights to fish and hunt as allowed in the 1855 treaty that created the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. He also noted the important role of tribal fisheries in supporting and growing the salmon population.

“We raise all kinds of salmon. The reality of it is, the tribes are doing more for this resource on the Columbia River than any other entity,” he said.

Reach Tammy Ayer at tayer@yakimaherald.com or on Facebook.