Moments before Dan DeVaul’s code violation criminal trial began on Sept. 11, two residents from his Sunny Acres ranch sat in the back of a SLO County courtroom. One of them, a woman, leaned forward in her seat, hands clasped together. She bowed her head slightly and silently mouthed a prayer.
Such displays have been normal during DeVaul’s defense against numerous code violation charges by county officials. Pleas from Sunny Acres residents have even helped DeVaul’s defense because of the unique service he provides to homeless and substance abusers with nowhere else to go. But early into the first days of his criminal trial—separate from the county charges—it was clear that this is a different type of case, one that’s so far devoid of the heartstring arguments so prevalent in DeVaul’s case with the county.
DeVaul sat quietly through the criminal proceedings, dressed in his usual garb: jeans, suspenders, and a wide-brimmed hat he removed each day before entering the courtroom.
A gag order on the case has kept attorneys and witnesses silent outside of the hearings.
As of press time, Deputy District Craig Van Rooyen was wrapping up witness testimony for the prosecution. A collection of building, fire, and code inspectors were called to the stand during the first two days of the trial. Their testimony focused mainly on the so-called stucco barn where Sunny Acres residents had been living. The prosecution’s witnesses testified the building was dangerous, with exposed wires, shoddy construction unsuitable for a residence, and fire dangers.
“Was it OK for people to be living there?” Van Rooyen asked Clint Bullard, an inspector for CAL Fire, who was called to testify on Sept. 15.
“Not in my opinion,” Bullard said. “No.”
DeVaul’s attorney, Jeffrey Stulberg, then asked if Bullard had ever been involved in a criminal prosecution for a code violation case, to which Bullard said no. Although DeVaul’s defense had not yet to begun, Stulberg’s questioning of witnesses seemed to set the stage for a defense that will try to show DeVaul was picked on by county officials and that the investigation only began because of a handful of neighbor complaints that came in years after he bought the property.
Stulberg asked County Code Enforcement Officer Jill Bennett if fines weren’t a sufficient penalty for the violations; she answered that county fines—not criminal prosecutions—are typically the penalty. Bennett testified earlier that DeVaul’s case was brought into criminal court because he made little or no attempt to bring his property up to code.
“Most of the cases that I’ve investigated, the property owner wants to comply,” Bennett said.
As of press time, the trial had been moving ahead of schedule, with DeVaul set to return to court on Sept. 17.