Heading into the courtroom on Jan. 27, Dan DeVaul was sure that the judge would not accept testimony from several of his witnesses, residents of the de facto rehab facility he runs on his ranch. He showed up to face nine misdemeanor criminal charges, all stemming from county code violations. Without the witnesses, DeVaul said, he would have no hope of defending himself.
After his attorney, Jeffrey Stulberg, met with the judge, however, DeVaul left the court with at least a little hope of presenting his defense.
DeVaul sat by himself in the front row of the Department Six courtroom, a room that seems better designed for processing the maximum number of criminals in the shortest amount of time, than dealing with a man like DeVaul. There was a mass of men in orange jumpsuits, and a couple in yellow—Atascadero State Hospital residents—with a sparse crowd of relatives, including fussing children, there to watch the trials.
DeVaul’s defense is called a defense of necessity, which means he’s not denying he broke the law, he’s saying that he was compelled to do so by dire circumstances. His witnesses are the people who have moved from uncertainty to his ranch on Los Osos Valley Road. For his defense, he hopes to demonstrate to the jury that residents of Sunny Acres were facing imminent danger from the elements before DeVaul took them in.
“We aren’t arguing code violations,” DeVaul said before the judge returned with a decision. “We’re arguing necessity. These people were living in a creek. It’s a matter of life and limb…”
Judge John Trice agreed to read witness statements in print form before deciding whether they’ll be allowed to testify. A trial date is set for Feb. 27.