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Appeals court says county can prosecute cattle case

A farmer whose cases were dismissed by a St. Croix County judge will have a jury trial Friday, Sept. 26, on charges that he allowed his cattle to wander on the highway.

Last week a District III Court of Appeals judge reversed Judge Scott Needham, who dismissed the charges against James L. Rushfeldt. Needham had said the allowing-livestock-on-highway law applies only to "situations where cattle are out, the owner is notified, and he does nothing."

In appealing Judge Needham's decision, county prosecutors argued that prior notice is enough to show an owner knowingly permitted his animals to run at large and failed to remove them.

Rushfeldt, who owns property in the town of Emerald, was charged seven times with allowing livestock on a county highway. The charges, two from fall 2003 and five from 2007, were all dismissed, according to Internet court records.

County prosecutors challenged only the dismissal of the cases resulting from events on July 12 and July 22, 2007.

In the July 12 report, Deputy Stephen Drost said he saw a dozen cattle on or near the road and recognized the animals as the Rushfeldts' from several past complaints. In the July 22 report, Drost again responded to find seven cattle in the ditch or on the shoulder. He again herded the cattle back inside the fence.

The record also contains a warning letter dated Dec. 11, 2006, from the district attorney's office to the Rushfeldts. That letter says the office had received several referrals complaining of the cattle on the road.

Before trial, Judge Needham dismissed the charges against Rushfeldt because the farmer hadn't received notice from the deputy on the same day the cattle were on the road.

The appeals court judge conceded that the state law could be understood as Judge Needham interpreted it or it could be understood to mean that a farmer could be in violation if he had been given earlier notice that his livestock were running at large.

But, says the appeals court decision, this law was prompted by a letter from the La Crosse County sheriff outlining several problems his department was having including complaints of cattle on the highway in his county.

The sheriff's letter said, "One particular case is a party who constantly permits his livestock to be on the highway and other persons' property, and although we have warned him on many occasions, there is nothing we can do about it."

Noting the similarities between the St. Croix case and the La Crosse example, the appeals court judge said using Judge Needham's reading of the law would mean "the statute would fail to apply in one of the very situations for which it was drafted."

The county court's narrow interpretation would make the law unenforceable, said the appeals judge.

His decision continued, "The county contends, and the police reports verify, no person would ever be held accountable ... because responding police officers must immediately clear the road of livestock upon arrival at the scene. The danger to the motoring public is too great to do otherwise."

Also, said the judge, it is nearly impossible for an officer to determine ownership and immediately notify the owner while protecting motorists.

The appeals judge said prosecutors should have the chance to present information that the owner knowingly permitted the cattle to run at large.