A rancher can't be convicted of illegally allowing his livestock to graze on federal lands unless the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so "recklessly, knowingly or purposely."
With that ruling, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson reversed a magistrate's finding that Dr. D.A. Osguthorpe could be convicted of the offense with a simple showing that his sheep were on federal property without authorization.Osguthorpe, a Holladay veterinarian who also operated a Summit County sheep ranch for the past 40 years, was cited in 1994 for "placing or allowing unauthorized livestock to enter or be in the (Wasatch-Cache) National Forest."
He did not contest the citation and was subsequently sentenced to one-year unsupervised probation and a $65 fine. When he received three more citations in late 1996, he pleaded not guilty and asked for a ruling on whether a showing of "mens rea" (intent) is required to prove a violation.
A magistrate decided last year that the government could prove its case simply by showing that Osguthorpe's sheep were found on Forest Service land. Osguthorpe then entered a guilty plea conditional upon an appeal of the magistrate's interpretation of the law. He was sentenced to 30 days in a halfway house, five years probation and a $5,000 fine.
In a ruling released Monday, Benson said the issue raised on appeal centered on the interpretation of "allowing" and "placing." The "common and ordinary" meanings of both words "indicate that some volition must be present," Benson said.
"To `allow' one's livestock to be on Forest Service property requires some level of involvement on the part of the owner," the judge said. For example, a sheep rancher hasn't "allowed" his sheep to be on Forest Service property if some third party released them from their pen and placed them there without the owner's knowledge.
Benson said if the government had wanted a strict liability standard, it could have easily written the regulation to say, "Any person's sheep found on Forest land is guilty of an offense."
"Accordingly, this court is reluctant to dispense with a mens rea requirement without a clear indication that the drafters of the regulation intended such a result," Benson said. "In order to prevail, the Forest Service must show that the defendant acted with the necessary mens rea."
Legally, there are different levels of intent, including willful, purposeful, negligent and reckless. Benson said that in the Osguthorpe case, the Forest Service must, at minimum, prove recklessness.
Osguthorpe will now be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and have the case tried under the new definition. The 76-year-old veterinarian achieved international fame in the 1960s by proving that the government was responsible for the nerve-gas deaths of 6,000 sheep near the Dugway Proving Grounds in Tooele County.