Dan De Vaul turned to a reporter before his hearing began in a small room in the back of the San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.
“Got your camera out?” he asked with a grin, and then thrust his hands toward the bailiff, mimicking the infamous photo snapped when he was cuffed and taken into custody last November.
De Vaul listened as his attorneys argued before a panel of SLO County appellate judges on the evening of Dec. 2.
De Vaul was convicted of two misdemeanor code violations late last year and appealed soon after. His attorneys made a two-fold argument: Judge John Trice improperly barred the testimony of De Vaul and about a dozen witnesses, and there was jury misconduct.
“What this case comes down to is whether Mr. De Vaul was given a fair trial,” Neil Tardiff, one of De Vaul’s attorneys, told the panel comprised of judges Barry LaBarbera, Ginger Garrett, and Martin Tangeman.
His other attorney, Jeff Stulberg, never called a witness during trial, but it wasn’t a bold tactic. De Vaul’s attorneys had hoped to make an argument of necessity, essentially that the code violations he committed were outweighed by the good he did for residents of his Sunny Acres ranch. None of them were allowed to testify. Stulberg and Tardiff said the jury, not the judge, should have decided whether those witnesses’ testimonies were relevant.
Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen countered that Trice’s decision meant those witnesses couldn’t testify on the necessity defense, not that they couldn’t testify at all. He argued witnesses’ testimonies were “philosophical beliefs.” Some judges seemed on the fence.
“Why is that more dangerous than the person with no home out there in the wild?” Tangeman said.
Also in question was whether Mary Partin, one of the jurors, was pressured into a verdict to which she didn’t agree. According to Partin’s declaration submitted after trial, she said she felt “bullied” by Trice and two other jurors. In fact, Partin bailed De Vaul out of jail the day after his conviction.
If the panel rules in favor of De Vaul, he’ll be granted a new trial on the two charges of which he was convicted: maintaining a fire hazard and unlawful land use.
Should the decision go the other way, the case will be appealed to the California 2nd District Court of Appeals, Stulberg said.
De Vaul is the founder and operator of the Sunny Acres sober living facility outside San Luis Obispo. His appeal stalled another decision by Judge Charles Crandall that would force some residents to be evicted until the code violations are corrected.