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Courtroom statement sparks lively argument between prosecutor, sheriff

The Power County Press of American Falls, Idaho

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Livestock-at-large citation prompts discussion about changing ordinance

A livestock-at-large citation has highlighted a rift between law enforcement and the judicial sys tem.

Locaf farmer and rancher La mar Isaak was in court Wednes day, April 16, to hear the outcome of a citation he received for having cattle loose on a Power County roadway. Isaak received two citations for having unrestricted cattle loose in a herd district.

Herd districts differ from open range areas by the requirements of how animals are supposed to be contained. In a herd district animals are supposed to be fenced in while in an open range area animals are allowed to roam freely and areas where animals are not wanted must be fenced to keep animals out.

Isaak was cited the first time on Monday, March 17, for having two bulls on the roadway near Register Rock. The second report came on Tuesday, April 1, when several cows were spotted on the road in the same area. Isaak claimed one of the cows found on the roadway did not belong to him.

Isaak was summoned to appear in court for the first violation on Monday, March 31, at that time the first citation was dismissed by Power County Prosecutor Ryan Petersen.

Isaak's second appearance in court was also ended, for him, with a dismissal of the citation.

After appearing at the request of Magistrate Judge Paul Laggis to explain his dismissal, Petersen characterized the hearing as "unusual." I am not certain why the judge wanted to have the grounds for dismissal given verbally in open court. I thought he wanted a hearing with witnesses, but he wanted the grounds entered into the record and that is his prerogative," said Petersen.

It was while telling Laggis the reasoning for dismissing the citation that Petersen made a couple of remarks that upset Power County Sheriff Jim Jeffries which culminated in a heated exchange between Petersen and Jeffries outside the courtroom.

Petersen cited several reasons for requesting the dismissal including his belief that citing Isaak "did not serve the interest of justice," the ordinance is "scarcely used and rarely enforced" and he did not have adequate proof to prosecute the charges.

Petersen's final reason was what upset Jeffries and other law enforcement officers in attendance."I believe this, being the second citation, was issued because I agreed to dismiss the first citation. That is not grounds for a second ticket," said Petersen.

Laggis informed Isaak he would accept the motion to dismiss the charges.

Petersen's final remark sparked a heated exchange between him and Jeffries.

Jeffries said he was taken aback by Petersen's comments."I am surprised he feels that way. When we cite someone there is always a report of the reasoning as to why we wrote the citation," said Jeffries.

Petersen explained his comment by saying the timing was suspicious."An outside observer could view this as selectively applying the ordinance. The second ticket was so closely written to the first one. With so few citations for this violation written to have two so close together it was unusual," said Petersen.

Power County Sheriff Deputy Troy Smith gave Isaak the second citation and said there was no malicious intent toward the prosecutor's first decision implied by writing the second citation.

"It is important to note that I was not in the area when the call came in. I was not looking for a reason. I was in another area of the county when I was called to respond to a citizen complaint," Smith said.

Smith said he was also surprised by Petersen's comments in court.

"I don't know where he got that idea from. We do the same thing for everyone, every time," Smith said.

Smith and Jeffries disagree with the suggestion the ordinance is being sporadically enforced and said officers follow a tiered protocol before issuing a citation."Everyone gets a verbal warning then a written warning and then a citation. Livestock gets out. It happens. Most times we help to get the animals out of a situation that is dangerous for the animals and people. It is when we have repeated problems that we issue a citation," said Jeffries."When we receive a call like this we come to the office and check our code book to make sure the complaint is in a herd district. We then check the warning book to see what type of actions have already been taken. Everyone gets a verbal warning followed by a written warning. Those are only good for that year. If a person has received both warnings in that calendar year then they get a citation. If it has gone past that calendar year since their last warning the cycle starts over," said Smith.

Smith said Petersen's impression is not correct that the livestock-at-large ordinance is rarely enforced.

"I think he needs to review all of the files not just listen to a few people that come into his office," said Smith.

"We have numerous calls about loose livestock. Most people receive the warning and fix the problem. I would be happy to show him (Petersen) all of the calls we receive here to our dispatch center and all of the warnings we issue," Jeffries said.

During his remarks in court Laggis, who assisted in creating the current county livestock-at-large ordinance during his time as Power County Prosecutor, noted there have not been a large number of citations issued."I can only think of a couple of times this citation has been issued during my time in Power County," said Laggis.

Petersen concurred with Laggis and said the rarity of issuing a livestock-at-large citation was proof the ordinance is being selectively enforced, but admits that may be a problem with the ordinance."What I mean to point out is they (law enforcement) can ticket so why do some people get the ticket and some people don't. We have created an ordinance that requires selective application," said Petersen.

Jeffries claims the reason there are not more livestock-at-large citations is most animal owners are responsive to the warning process.

"The majority of the time livestock owners take the warning seriously. They don't like having their animals out and they like it even less when they get a warning. These people don't want to risk further problems so they address the problem by fixing fences, making sure gates are closed or moving the animals," Jeffries said.

Jeffries and Petersen may disagree about the reasoning behind citing Isaak, but they do agree, along with Isaak, the ordinance needs to be changed."This has certainly brought the idea around to me. I am planning to speak with the commissioners about changing this law," said Isaak."I believe one of the reason we do not see more people reporting stray animals is the ordinance is too harsh. I think people do get annoyed by their neighbor's cows or horses being out all of the time, but also don't want their neighbor to possibly go to jail," said Petersen.

Petersen is suggesting adding an infraction to the progression from verbal warning to misdemeanor citation.

"I would like to see an ordinance where it is progressive in nature. Something that is responsive and creates enough of a penalty to motivate people, but doesn't throw the book at them the very first time," said Petersen.

He said adding an infraction would correct the selective enforcement of the livestock-at-large ordinance.

"Put an infraction in place that we are more comfortable issuing. It shouldn't be so big it breaks a person for one violation, but would create a financial burden if it is an ongoing issue for one person," said Petersen.

Jeffries said his concern is not about what levels the ordinance includes, but rather how the ordinance is enforced.

"I am legally liable if I instruct my department to not enforce a law. If the prosecutor and the commissioners think an infraction is the solution me and my deputies will issue infractions. I am in a sticky spot with this because there is an ordinance on the books. We enforce it as it is written, but then that enforcement is not being followed through in the courts. It puts law enforcement in a bad light if we are out issuing citations that are not enforced in the courts. If he thinks an infraction would help I am all for it, if he is willing to enforce it in court. At this point I would like to see the current ordinance repealed if it is not going to be upheld by the prosecutor. If we take the law off the books we don't have to enforce it. If it is on the books we have to enforce it regardless of what people feel about it." said Jeffries.

While Jeffries may have strong words about repealing the law, he does acknowledge there is a need for a livestock-at-large law.

"This ordinance is not about being mean to ranchers. This is about public safety. Vehicle versus livestock collisions are horrible. Having an ordinance in place gives us some teeth to address chronic offenders. It lessens the chance someone will run into livestock," said Jeffries.

In court Laggis explained the importance of the law.

"The real tragedy would not be you, Mr. Isaak, losing a cow. It would be someone getting hurt or killed because they hit one of your covM This is a public safety issue said Laggis.

"We have to find a way to protect everyone we can. It would be devastating for the victims of a crash with a cow or horse. It would also be financially devastating to the.animal owner to pay for damages an accident like that would create. At the same time I think it is very harsh to possibly fine someone, place them on extended terms of probation or send them to jail because their cows found a weakness in a fence," said Petersen.

Both Petersen and Jeffries indicated there has been some discussion between their departments and the Power County Commissioners about changing the livestock-at-large ordinance, but that no timeline exists for making changes to the law.

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Original Publication Date: April 23, 2014

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