The defense attorney for a Big Oak Valley rancher found guilty of misdemeanor animal cruelty has asked the appeals court to reverse a judge’s decision to grant legal standing in the case to Sammie’s Friends.
A Nevada County Superior Court judge ruled in late July that the nonprofit organization, which had been caring for Louis Silva’s animals, had legal standing in the case. The judge had postponed any decision on the group’s attempt to block the release of animals back to Silva, as well as sentencing, until Sept. 6.
But the appellate court issued a stay Thursday, which means that any further court proceedings will be delayed until the court decides whether it will hear the reversal request.
Silva was tried on three felony counts and two misdemeanor counts after more than a dozen animals were removed 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. Sammie’s Friends, the nonprofit group that runs the county’s animal shelter, has been caring for Silva’s animals for the last 15 months.
Since then, Nevada County Deputy District Attorney Oliver Pong has been negotiating the restitution amount due Sammie’s Friends. But after he agreed to release some of the animals back to Silva, the nonprofit group filed an objection.
Silva’s attorney, Stephen Munkelt, argued that Sammie’s Friends could not be an interested party, but Nevada County Superior Court Judge R.M. Smith sided with them.
Munkelt then filed a petition with the Third Appellate District Court of Appeal, asking that court to reverse Smith’s ruling.
On Thursday, the court of appeal issued a stay “pending filing of opposition and further order.”
Munkelt said he anticipates the court will set a hearing date for the Superior Court, Sammie’s Friends or the state Attorney General to respond to the petition.
“I’m very glad the Court of Appeal is taking a look at the unprecedented decision to allow a political action group standing as a party in a criminal case,” Munkelt said. “The penal code clearly states that the parties in a criminal case are the defendant and the People, which in practice means the district attorney.”
According to Pong, the appeal court receives many requests for review, and only decides to hear a small percentage.
Jill Telfer, the attorney representing Sammie’s Friends, added it was highly unlikely such a request would be granted.
“I am confident the writ will be denied,” Telfer said. “I believe this is an effort by Mr. Silva to delay the fact that a determination will be made that he will not be able to own any animals for five years.”
In an email to The Union, Munkelt suggested Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell caved to pressure from animal rights groups.
“I am disappointed that our district attorney chose not to oppose the effort of an advocacy group to enter this case,” Munkelt said. “The D.A. is supposed to have exclusive discretion to decide what charges to bring, what offers to make, and what arguments to make for sentencing. Since Mr. Newell did not act to protect the independence and integrity of his office, I am concerned this will only make it harder for him to withstand the pressure of interest groups in the future.”
“I don’t cater to any particular special interest group,” Newell responded. “I listen to everybody, I consider all facts and circumstances on any given issue and try to make the appropriate decision.”
Newell noted that the Silva case was complicated by some unique issues, due to the fact that Nevada County Animal Control investigated the case and seized the animals, but the county’s shelter is run by Sammie’s Friends.
“It’s a bifurcated department now, because the nonprofit takes cares of the animals,” he said. “It raises some unique issues as to who should have a place at the table (i.e. legal standing). I’m not going to second-guess the judge. This is a legal issue that will be hammered out in the court system.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, call (530) 477-4229.