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Judge denies rancher’s appeal: Dan De Vaul won’t get new day in court

jjohnston@thetribunenew.com

Dan De Vaul, the San Luis Obispo County rancher convicted on two charges of violating building safety and vehicle storage codes, was denied a new trial Tuesday.

Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy ruled against De Vaul and his lawyers, who had argued that misconduct by jurors and Judge John Trice tainted the verdict.

De Vaul’s sentencing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Monday in Trice’s courtroom. He faces a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and a year in County Jail.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Craig Van Rooyen dropped five other charges relating to alleged code violations against De Vaul that resulted in a deadlocked jury.

The District Attorney’s Office had the right to re-try those charges.

De Vaul was acquitted in the Sept. 21 verdict of two other allegations relating to his property use.

The rancher has long argued that he was unfairly prosecuted, saying he provides a valuable service in housing the homeless and offering a substance abuse program to help people on his 70-acre Sunny Acres ranch on Los Osos Valley Road outside San Luis Obispo.

On Tuesday, Duffy said that Trice acted properly by questioning a juror about her willingness to deliberate.

The jury forewoman had said that juror wasn’t willing to engage in discussion.

The defense argued that Trice put undue pressure on the juror by isolating her from her peers and then sending her back into the jury room to continue deliberations.

Van Rooyen argued that Trice was compelled to respond to a request for guidance on how to proceed given the jury forewoman’s note about the inability to have an open discussion.

“(Judge Trice) did nothing to taint the verdict,” Duffy said in court.

Duffy also said that Trice’s ruling to exclude a necessity defense is something that De Vaul’s lawyers — Jeffrey Stulberg and Neil Tardiff — should take up in appeals court and not at the trial court level. A necessity defense puts forth an explanation for why someone violated the law.

Attorneys are under a gag order from Trice and can’t speak to the media about a possible appeal of the case. Appeals can be filed within 30 days of sentencing under state law.

Stulberg has worked on the case for more than a year as a pro bono attorney, meaning that he hasn’t charged De Vaul for his services, according to court documents. Those documents do not indicate whether Tardiff has also worked for free.

The case began in May 2008, according to records.

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