A Baltimore County husband and wife were wrongly ordered to pay the costs of rescuing two of their horses, even though their criminal neglect of a third horse was so severe that the animal had to be killed, Maryland’s top court unanimously held on Monday.
Hilton and Donna Silver were convicted of animal cruelty only toward the deceased horse, Calypso, and therefore had no legal culpability for the care of the other two horses, the Court of Appeals said.
The decision overturned a $16,781 restitution order against the couple.
While a defendant can “freely and voluntarily” agree to make restitution regarding other crimes as part of a plea agreement, that didn’t happen here, Judge Sally D. Adkins wrote for the high court.
“[I]t is clear that the circuit court’s order of restitution for the surviving horses was invalid,” Adkins wrote. “The restitution order was not part of a plea agreement, and the Silvers never agreed to pay for the rehabilitation of the two surviving horses.”
The court otherwise affirmed the Silvers’ convictions, rejecting their argument that evidence showing the surviving horses was improperly admitted at their trial.
The evidence depicted the crime scene, the top court said; and, even if there had been error, it was harmless error given the “overwhelming” evidence of Calypso’s ill treatment.
“We do not see how a fleeting mention of two underweight horses in the yard had any more than a negligible effect on the circuit court,” Adkins wrote.
Hilton Silver, an attorney, declined to comment on Monday. Donna Silver, through her husband, also declined to comment.
The Silvers had been sentenced to 84 days in jail for their neglect of Calypso, with all but 60 days of Hilton Silver’s sentence and all but 30 days of Donna Silver’s sentence suspended. Those sentences were not on appeal.
“Bad things happen to mean people,” said Assistant Baltimore County State’s Attorney Adam Lippe, who prosecuted the Silvers. The restitution decision “will give us guidance in the future,” Lippe added.
The court said prosecutors made “a procedural mistake” by dropping charges of animal cruelty toward the other two horses.
The Silvers initially pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty in Maryland District Court and were sentenced to six days in jail. They appealed, as was their right, for a new trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court.
“Had the state refiled those charges, it would have preserved the full range of sentencing options, including restitution for those counts and avoided this procedural quandary,” Adkins wrote. “Unfortunately it did not.”
Limiting victims’ rights
The decision drew criticism from the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center Inc., which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in support of the restitution order.
The ruling “limited the possibility of certain victims obtaining restitution” when criminal defendants have acknowledged — but have not been convicted of — misdeeds toward those victims, said Russell Butler, the group’s executive director.
Butler said the General Assembly should broaden the restitution statute to ensure all victims are compensated following the high court’s decision.
“The courts should have broad discretion to order restitution where appropriate,” he said.
County police and animal control agents went to the Silvers’ Windsor Mill home in March 2009 after receiving a call about a horse lying under a tarp for five days, according to the court’s opinion.
Veterinarian Elizabeth Klebe described Calypso, a gray mare, as 400 to 500 pounds underweight, sitting in its own fecal matter and unable to lift its head. Klebe performed euthanasia that day because of the mare’s distress, according to court documents.
The other horses, a chestnut Arabian and bay Arabian, were visibly underweight, with cracked hooves and burrs in their manes, the documents stated.
The state obtained a warrant and took the horses to Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine in April 2009.
The horses have thrived at the farm, said Brooke Bierman-Vrany, the facility’s assistant director.
“They are healthy horses right now,” Bierman-Vrany added. “They are happy, healthy, ride-able and waiting for somebody to adopt them.”
Bierman-Vrany said she hopes the farm can recover the $16,781 through donations, the facility’s main source of revenue.
“No restitution has been paid and it sounds like it won’t be,” Bierman-Vrany said.
Daily Record Web Editor Danny Jacobs contributed to this article.
WHAT THE COURT HELD
Donna Silver v. Maryland; Hilton Silver v. Maryland, CA Nos. 98 and 99 (consolidated), Sept. Term 2010. Reported. Opinion by Adkins, J. Filed June 20, 2011.
Did the lower court err in (1) ordering restitution for animal cruelty offenses for which defendants were not convicted? (2) admitting photographic evidence depicting two horses who were not the subject of the prosecution?
(1) Yes; defendants may not be held legally culpable for crimes of which they have not been convicted. (2) No; the photographs depicted the crime scene and if there was error, it would was harmless.
Deborah S. Richardson and Kimberly A. Kline for petitioners; Ryan R. Dietrich for respondent.
RecordFax # 11-0620-21