Gwinnett man ordered to pay attorney costs in turtle lawsuit

A Lawrenceville man is shell-shocked after his fight to reclaim a beloved turtle collection suffered a setback this month.

U.S. District Court Judge William Duffey Jr., who earlier dismissed Steven Santhuff's civil lawsuit against state wildlife officer Steve Seitz, ordered Santhuff to pay $46,000 in attorney fees and court costs on Sept. 17.

The lawsuit alleged Seitz and two federal wildlife officers violated Santhuff's civil rights by going into his backyard without a warrant to gather information about his turtle collection in 2005. The evidence they obtained was used as a basis to arrest Santhuff on charges related to the illegal possession and breeding of rare turtles.

A Gwinnett County jury found Santhuff not guilty. The amateur herpetologist won a related lawsuit against the two federal officers who participated in the investigation in July. A federal civil jury awarded Santhuff $88,500 in that case.

However, Duffey tossed out the lawsuit against Seitz last year because of a discrepancy in an affidavit filed by a neighbor, court records show.

"Given the fact the attorneys fees were awarded based on the submission of a sham affidavit by the plaintiff, the award of attorney fees was clearly appropriate," said Russ Willard, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office, which represented Seitz.

Santhuff said that the judgment could bankrupt him. Santhuff hasn't seen a dime of the money he was awarded in the other lawsuit yet, because the wildlife agents filed a motion for a new trial.

Nevertheless, he'll proceed with a lawsuit in Gwinnett County Superior Court against the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"I just have to. I don't want them to do this to me anymore or anyone else," Santhuff said.

The lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources seeks the return of turtles that were seized and damages for losses he suffered as a result.

More than 500 turtles were confiscated, but about 300 died in state custody. Only 128 of the reptiles were given back in August 2009, along with 14 hatchlings that were birthed in the interim.

"The problem he has, like most citizens have, is when you're fighting the state government or the federal government, they have unlimited funds," said Santhuff's attorney, Nick Dumich. "It's been a very hard-fought case on all sides."