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Florida’s War on Treasure Hunters

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Category: Wreckdiver's Blog
Created on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 06:10

By Tommy Vawter

It’s no secret to Florida treasure hunters that the state archaeologist of the DHR (Division of Historical Resources), do not care for the treasure hunting and metal detecting community in Florida. Over the years the DHR has made it increasingly more difficult for shipwreck salvors to recover lost treasures from Florida state waters, and over the last few years will not even issue search permits to conduct surveys along the coast.

In 1982 the State of Florida suffered a major blow when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Treasure Salvors, Inc. and ordered the state to return all of the hundreds of millions of dollars of treasure that the state had confiscated from salvors working in the Florida Keys.

Famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his crew had recovered the treasure from the Spanish Shipwreck, Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The Atocha had sunk in a storm in 1622 off the Florida Keys, while on its return trip to Spain after plundering the treasures of South America. The State of Florida only had legal bills from a protracted eight year battle with Mel Fisher.

In the mean time the State of Florida would have to settle for its 20% take on the treasures recovered by other permitted treasure salvors working the rest of the 1622 fleet that sank up and down the Keys, as well as the operations recovering treasure from the combined treasure fleets that went down along Florida’s east coast during a hurricane in 1715.

The State of Florida even had at one time, a program called the Isolated Finds program”, this program required armature archeologists, treasure hunters and metal detectorist to report any finds to the DHR for cataloging in its data base, and in turn would assign ownership rights to the finder unless the find was culturally significant.

The DHR did away with this program back in 2005, sighting that the DHR could not afford to continue the program. At the same time they passed a law making it illegal to recover any manmade object 50 years old or older from Florida waterways. The DHR claimed that they were concerned that arrow head collectors were recovering Indian artifacts from Florida Rivers and water ways.

In the latest of what is perceived to be attack on the Florida treasure hunting community, the DHR has successfully moved a couple of Bills over to the Florida State Legislature. In November of 2011, Senate Bill 868, and House Bill 591 were both filed in the State legislature.

On February 16th, 2012 HB 591 titled Archeological Sites and Specimens, passed the house with a vote of 118 to 0

Senate Bill 868 will go before the Budget Committee and the Budget Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations later today.

The Senate Bill, also titled “Archeological Sites and Specimens” sounds innocent enough, and after all most of the Florida treasure hunters that I know basically agree that archeological sites and artifacts should be protected.

News of this legislation has stirred up a hornets’ nest amongst the metal detecting and treasure hunting community, and folks are just plum angry that the state of Florida is trying to take away our rights to pursue the hobby of metal detecting and the livelihood of the many professional treasure hunters in the state.

Many believe that the State has kept this issue quiet in an attempt to blindside the treasure hunting and metal detecting community, effectively silencing our combined voices, and keeping the public out of the legislative process. After all, the legislature has been working this issue for more than four months now, and no one in the community was even aware of it until just yesterday. This in and of itself raises red flags and just fuels the fire that once again, the people of Florida do not have a voice in our own Government.

So, the question is how this legislation is really going to affect the treasure hunting and metal detecting community. Are we still going to be able to spend a leisurely afternoon in a school yard, Local Park or on the beach with the family looking for lost coins and pull tabs? Are tourists from Ohio that show up at the beach with a metal detector going to be slapped in handcuffs and hauled off to jail? We don’t really know just yet. But one thing is for sure. The power of the Florida DHR is expanding significantly, and for this treasure hunter, that’s not a good thing.

TreasureWorks has reviewed both the House and Senate Bills, and there is not much difference between the two. So without bogging this down with a lot of legalese, just what is it that our State Government is attempting to accomplish with this legislation? The simple answer is that the politicians are not trying to accomplish a damn thing other than to make themselves look good and feel good about protecting our cultural heritage. Let’s face it; politicians today don’t give a rat’s ass about the public interest until just before election time. A couple of esteemed archeologist come to them and say we must protect the past for future generations, pass this legislation and the sheeple will love you for it.

The real question is what is the DHR attempting to do with this legislation? That answer is a little more sinister than that of the useless politicians. So, just what is it that the DHR gets in this deal?

First and foremost the DHR gets an unprecedented expansion of power over state owned lands and that includes most all of the Florida beaches and state-owned sovereignty submerged lands. But wait, there’s more; they also gain the power to grant permits, designate land as a state archeological site or landmark zones on what they describe as a “political subdivision”. Hey that sounds OK until you know just what a political subdivision is. It basically includes counties, cities, towns, villages, townships, districts (to include School Distrects), authorities, and other public corporations and entities whether organized and existing under charter or general law. [Section 22.03(5), Florida Statutes.].

The second really disturbing part of this legislation is that the DHR will now have the power to levy fines, and lucky you, no court date since the best you will get is a administrative hearing before, you got it the DHR. So if you find an eight real coin from the 1700’s on Melbourne Beach and take it home with you, it’s a first degree misdemeanor with a $500 a day administrative fine and forfeiture of the coin. Sure just sell it on eBay, the buyer is in for the same treatment.

God help you if the DHR has designated some little town like Satellite Beach, or for that matter the entire barrier island as an archeological landmark or zone and you find that same eight real coin, you have now committed a third degree felony, good by metal detector, and the car you used to get to the beach. Hello bubba your new cell mate, and don’t fall for that old line about do you want to be the husband or the wife. It’s a unhappy ending for you no matter how you cut it.

The only really sound thing we observed was that DHR is prohibited from designating private property as an archeological site without the land owner’s written permission. However, if a landowner does give permission to designate his land as such, he will have to get a permit from the DHR just to dig on his own land. From what I know of reading the volumes of requirements for just a search permit along the coast, the land owner will have to have a full time state certified archeologist on his staff just to plant a garden.

OK, enough of the bad news. The good news is that they don’t specifically mention metal detectors anyplace in this legislation, so if you want to hit the beach with the detector I think you will be ok just so long as you don’t pick up anything older than 50 years old.

The bottom line on this, is this legislation does nothing more for the protection of Florida’s cultural heritage than the laws that are already on the books. All it does if give vast amounts of power to a state agency with no elected officials to hold accountable, and creates a protective screen for all the cowardly politicians that are so willing to differ power to a bunch of ivory tower bureaucrats.

Should you as a metal detectorist or treasure hunter be upset about this legislation? Damn right! However, property owners should be equally upset that the state can declare “abandon property” as property of the state without any due process. This is a violation of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Wake up America!

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