Two out of three convictions against former Monument fire chief Roy Peterson have been overturned by the Oregon Court of Appeals.
The appeals court ruled Feb. 3 that the trial court should have granted Peterson’s motion for judgment of acquittal on a charge of aggravated first-degree theft and a charge of possession of a stolen vehicle because the state did not prove that the Monument Rural Fire District owned the firefighting vehicles in question — and that the MRFD could not have owned the vehicles at the time of the alleged theft in 2013 because the district was incapable of conducting business until January 2014 when it filed articles of incorporation.
“Roy Peterson has maintained from the outset that his possession of the vehicles and equipment was in keeping with the law, and that the allegation by his accusers that his possession was illegal were false and contrary to the law,” said Peterson’s attorneys Benjamin D. Boyd and D. Zachary Hostetter of Hostetter Law Group in a statement. “We are pleased that the Oregon Court of Appeals has confirmed the legal position of Mr. Peterson.”
The appeals court reversed the two convictions and remanded them to the lower court for resentencing. The appeals court otherwise affirmed the lower court’s ruling, including a conviction on a charge of first-degree theft.
The charges stem from Peterson’s acquisition of resources — money and equipment — for fire protection in Monument and his subsequent refusal to turn over the resources to the Monument Rural Fire District, which was formed by voters in November of 2012.
The state prosecutor, Senior Assistant Attorney General Daniel P. Wendel, said in his closing argument the first-degree theft charge was for submitting a fraudulent invoices in excess of $1,000 with a grant application to the Oregon Department of Forestry on or about Feb. 15, 2013. Wendel said Peterson used white out to submit the same invoice on different grant applications in 2011 and 2012.
Hostetter said at the trial, for all of the charges, Peterson acted under an honest claim of right, believing he was entitled to the property or had a right to acquire or dispose of it as he did.
The charges that were overturned — first-degree aggravated theft and possession of a stolen vehicle — were for withholding fire vehicles and equipment in excess of $10,000 from the Monument Rural Fire District in February 2013.
The appeals court summary states Peterson acquired firefighting equipment and vehicles between 2001 and 2012 and formed the voluntary Monument Rural Fire Department, serving as its chief, with the goal of becoming an official fire district.
After voters approved the Monument Rural Fire District in November 2012, the Grant County Court issued an order officially forming and establishing the district. Peterson separated from the district after disagreements with its board of directors, retained the equipment he had procured and did not turn over the equipment when the district demanded it in 2013, according to the appeals court summary.
“Nothing in the record supports the view that, in recognizing MRFD as a formal fire protection district, the county somehow converted — or ‘morphed,’ to use the trial court’s term — the voluntary department into the district or that the order establishing the district otherwise extinguished the department as a matter of law,” the appeals court ruling states. “... And, as the district’s board members acknowledged at trial, no action had been taken to transfer ownership or legal title from the department to MRFD before the district demanded the equipment from (Peterson) in February 2013.”
Further, the appeals court ruled the district could not do business until it filed its articles of incorporation in January 2014.
“The state does not argue that a legal entity that, by law, cannot engage in business transactions can nonetheless acquire ownership of property from another entity, even assuming that it could otherwise own property...” the ruling states.