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San Francisco Store's Suit Halts California's Ban on Alligator Leather

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — A suit filed by the owner of a San Francisco accessory store succeeded in stopping California's ban on selling alligator leather products after a federal judge ruled Thursday that the ban is unenforceable, at least temporarily.

Béatrice Amblard owns April In Paris, a custom luxury goods store in San Francisco's Richmond District. A master leather artisan, Amblard opened her store after working for Hermès for 15 years.

Accessories that use alligator skin make up a large portion of her business -- she estimates they make up between 30 to 40% of her sales. So when the California legislature passed a ban on the sale of alligator and crocodile skins in the state last September, Amblard was concerned that the law could lead to her store shutting down.

Béatrice Amblard and her daughter Amelie in front of their store April In Paris (Chloe Jackman/April In Paris)

"Losing my business is not part of my program," Almbard said over the phone Thursday.

The state of Louisiana and a coalition of companies in California, Florida and Texas recruited Almbard to be the plaintiff on a suit they filed against the state back in December of 2019.

This week, Chief District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller of California's Eastern District ruled that California's ban on selling alligator products probably violates federal laws and the state cannot enforce it while other legal challenges make their ways through the court.

"We are encouraged by the court's decision. We know this is the first step and not the last. But it gives Louisiana's vital alligator industry the ability to continue operating in California and beyond," Bill Hogan, chair of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, said in a statement to the Associated Press.

California's law also covers products made from two crocodile species — Nile and saltwater — which also can be sold legally under an international conservation treaty and U.S. laws.

Louisiana and the other plaintiffs made a strong showing that federal law, including the Endangered Species Act, controls trade in those products and preempts California from barring trade in them, Mueller wrote. She rejected California's argument that it was only regulating trade within the state.

Mueller's order follows a temporary order that halted enforcement in December.

"Our office is reviewing the court's decision," the California attorney general's press office said in an email.

California's arguments centered on "ability to enforce their policy goals," while challengers showed "a likelihood of serious and far-reaching harm to their businesses and the managed conservation scheme they describe," the judge wrote. She said that tipped "the balance of hardships ... sharply in favor of the plaintiffs."

Harvests and hide sales of American alligators and the two crocodile species are highly regulated, both for their own sake and because they look like other protected species.

Alligator Bag
Bespoke alligator bag of featuring custom green alligator skins, designed by Béatrice Amblard (April In Paris)

"The crocodile industry is now worth over 100 million dollars a year, the illegal trade has all but vanished, and crocodiles are far more abundant than they were 50 years ago," Dilys Roe, of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said in a sworn statement backing up the companies' request to prevent enforcement of California's law.

She said enforcement would do "profound and immediate" harm to crocodile populations and "thousands of poor people who rely on income earned from collecting eggs for crocodile farming."

Environmental and animal rights groups contend gator products' similar appearances still pose a danger to endangered or threatened species, including the endangered Chinese alligator — the only other alligator species in the world — and the Nile and saltwater crocodile, which are threatened in some areas but not in others.

Almbard says she's happy about the decision, as it's been difficult enough to keep the store open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have a year before anything else will be decided," Almbard said. "We just know for right now we're in the safe zone."

© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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