Several dozen animal rights activists carrying cut-outs of farm animals protested outside the Nevada County Courthouse Thursday morning, then packed the courtroom during a hearing for a Big Oak Valley rancher found guilty of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
The pro-animal groups on hand won a partial victory after a judge ruled that the nonprofit organization that had been caring for the animals had legal standing in the case.
But a decision on an attempt to block the release of any animals back to the defendant was postponed until September.
Louis Silva Jr. had gone to trial on three felony counts and two misdemeanor counts after the county’s Animal Control Department removed more than a dozen animals from his Patino Road property in March 2011. Jurors found Silva guilty this spring of the two misdemeanors, but were split on the felony charges.
Nevada County Deputy District Attorney Oliver Pong had been negotiating the restitution amount due Sammie’s Friends; the nonprofit group runs the county’s animal shelter and had been caring for Silva’s animals for the last 15 months. But his decision to release some of the animals that had not been charged in the criminal case back to Silva angered a number of animal rights activists.
In June, Sammie’s Friends filed a motion objecting to any proposed order to return the animals, alleging that the group has spent nearly $4,000 to care for them. The motion alleged that Silva had surrendered two severely neglected cattle in 2010 and that the animals seized in 2011 were in “extremely poor condition.” Silva allegedly had failed to post the costs of care and has not provided any funds for the animals’ care, the motion read.
In another motion filed July 19, Sammie’s Friends attorney Jill Telfer wrote that “if death is not a consequence of Silva’s neglect, his neglect in all likelihood will result with unnecessary and unjustifiable physical pain and suffering. Many of these animals ultimately may need to be returned to Sammie’s Friends.”
Silva’s attorney, Stephen Munkelt, filed an objection on the basis that Sammie’s Friends could not be an interested party to the case. But in Nevada County Superior Court Thursday, Judge R.M. Smith sided with the nonprofit, agreeing that it did have legal standing.
Smith kept a tight rein on the crowd during the hearing, at one point reprimanding them by saying, “This is not a sporting event; you can’t express your approval or disapproval of what the court is doing.”
Smith indicated that he was inclined to rule that reimbursement was owed to Sammie’s Friends for all of the animals that were lawfully seized, noting that whether the seizures were lawful could be in dispute.
Pong agreed to dismiss the remaining three felony counts “in the interests of justice and (due to) insufficient evidence;” Smith then scheduled Silva’s sentencing for 8:30 a.m. Sept. 6. He will hear a petition for the return of the animals, as well as the objection filed by Sammie’s Friends, at that time.
“We were very pleased with the decision,” Telfer said afterward. “It takes into account that Sammie’s Friends is an interested party, that it has a genuine interest in the animals.”