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State v. Cressler

Supreme Court of Montana

February 4, 2014

STATE OF MONTANA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
JAMES R. CRESSLER, Defendant and Appellant.

Submitted on Briefs: January 2, 2014

District Court of the Third Judicial District, In and For the County of Granite, Cause No. DC 12-02 Honorable Ray Dayton, Presiding Judge.

For Appellant: James R. Cressler, self-represented; Drummond, Montana

For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General; Jonathan M. Krauss, Assistant Attorney General; Helena, Montana Chris Miller, Granite County Attorney; Phillipsburg, Montana


Jim Rice Justice

¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(d), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

¶2 Defendant, James Cressler (Cressler) and his father, Robert Cressler (Robert), both have homes on a 20-acre parcel of land in Drummond. The property is marked with no trespassing signs and orange posts, although Felan Road passes through the Cressler property. From the testimony, rights associated with the road appear disputed but, at a minimum, it provides access to other area landowners. On December 27, 2011, Dale Cochrell (Cochrell), Scott Adler (Scott), and Jake Adler (Jake) were hunting mountain lions in the area, where public lands are interspersed with private holdings. They were hunting with three dogs—Bob, Shy, and Bodie. It is undisputed that, at some point during the day, the dog Bob (Bob), owned by Cochrell, crossed a portion of Cressler's property. Cressler and Robert had approximately 27 dogs of their own on their property. The events that followed are disputed, so the following is taken from the evidence introduced at trial.

¶3 Cressler asserted that around 8:45 a.m., several of his dogs began barking and running toward the house while being attacked and chased by two unknown dogs. Cressler reported that he had had problems with other dogs on his property in the past and would summarily shoot unknown dogs on his property. Both Robert and Cressler fired what Robert described as "warning shots" to scare off the attacking dogs, but one of the shots fired by Cressler struck and killed Bob. Cressler stated that two of his dogs were injured in the attack, but he did not seek medical attention for them. He stated that he later found the two dogs dead from their injuries and buried them. Robert placed Bob in a garbage bag and dumped him in a gully about two miles down the road from Cressler's property. Cressler called the Sheriff's Office that morning to report the attack and shooting of the dog. Deputy Roland Hultman spoke with Cressler on the phone and met with Cressler and Robert at approximately two o'clock that afternoon.

¶4 Deputy Hultman was not shown any injured or dead dogs on Cressler's property, nor was he shown a location where a dog fight had occurred. Deputy Hultman asked Cressler to take the dogs to the vet for medical attention in order to document the injuries, however he was told that Cresslers would not seek medical attention for either dog because they did not want to invest money in any dog since they had so many.

¶5 Scott testified that while looking for the dog, he drove up Felan Road which goes through Cressler's property. Cressler approached Scott in the road. Scott asked if Cressler had seen any dogs, and Cressler replied that two "ran off that way." Cressler did not mention the dog fight, shooting, or disposal of Bob. Scott noticed dog tracks and blood on the ground near Cressler's gate. There only appeared to be one set of dog tracks, along with human tracks and drag marks.

¶6 Cochrell testified that he used the tracking collar to locate Bob. After finding Bob dead in the garbage bag, clearly killed by a gunshot, Cochrell called the Sheriff's Office. Cochrell testified that he would be surprised if any of his dogs would have gone off the lion track and tangled with other dogs given their breeding, instinct, and training. Deputies Hultman and Ed Short responded to the call and met Cochrell and Scott where Bob was found. The group traveled to where Scott had noticed blood and dog tracks earlier in the day.

¶7 Both Deputies testified that when viewing the location where Scott had found blood that day, they only saw what appeared to be one set of dog tracks. There were no signs of a dog fight in the area where Bob was killed. They also testified that their examination of Bob revealed a clear bullet hole to the abdomen and a possible gunshot in the head, but no sign of an altercation with other dogs such as bite marks or tears.

¶8 Cressler was issued citations for cruelty to animals, criminal mischief, and harassment, all misdemeanors, on January 22, 2012. Cressler entered a plea of not guilty to all charges on February 3, 2012, and he was appointed trial counsel. A jury trial was held on July 20, 2012, in Justice Court. Following his conviction on all three counts, Cressler appealed to the Third Judicial District Court, Granite County, on August 21, 2012. Daniel Miller and James Reavis were substituted as counsel for Cressler before the District Court. The District Court signed a Scheduling Order on September 20, 2012, setting the trial for March 11, 2013.

ΒΆ9 Miller subsequently filed a motion to continue the trial on March 4, 2013 "on the grounds and for the reasons that the defense ha[d] been made aware of new information regarding this matter and need[ed] additional time to fully investigate that information." The State did not object to the continuance, and the trial was reset for May 30, 2013. Cressler assets this continuance was filed without his knowledge. He subsequently requested leave to represent himself. The District Court granted Cressler's request, and appointed Miller and Reavis as stand-by ...

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