RENO, Nev. – At one point this year, Patricia Vincent faced up to 20 years in prison for hiring a company to chop down trees on national forest land next to her home to improve her view of Lake Tahoe.
Instead, she ended up serving about 4 minutes of probation.
"This case is unique, no matter how you cut it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Rachow said at Wednesday's sentencing hearing.
In fairness, Vincent, 57, of Incline Village, also performed more than 80 hours of community service and paid $100,000 in restitution as part of a deal in which she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of unlawfully cutting trees on U.S. land.
The short probation period was a legal technicality resulting from the fact that she had already paid the restitution and completed the community service by the time she arrived in federal court for sentencing in Reno. The plea deal dictated that upon completion of those requirements, the probation would be suspended.
U.S. District Court Judge Brian Sandoval questioned why it was even necessary to include the probation as part of the sentence.
"It is unusual to request to put on probation then take it off. It would be the fastest probation I have ever imposed," he told Rachow and Vincent's defense lawyer, Scott Freeman.
But Rachow said that it was necessary to have a record of the probation if for some reason there developed problems with verifying completion of the community service.
So Sandoval reluctantly acquiesced.
"It is a bit awkward to have a probation last just seconds," Sandoval said before ordering the probation at 4:58 p.m.
Next, the judge said he was required to inform Vincent that, while on probation, the conditions dictate that she shall commit no other crime, possess no illegal substances and be subject to immediate search of her home and vehicle if requested by law enforcement.
Then, at 5:02 p.m., Sandoval ruled favorably on Freeman's motion to suspend the probation.
Vincent was indicted in January by a federal grand jury in Reno on felony charges of theft of government property and willingly damaging government property. She faced up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of those original counts if convicted. The misdemeanor charge she pleaded to carried a maximum of six months in prison.
Sandoval said he thought Wednesday's lesser sentence was appropriate because Vincent had no prior criminal history, has been embarrassed and humiliated by the publicity of the case and seems to have learned her lesson.
"The $100,000 is punitive. That's a large amount of money," Sandoval said of the restitution — $35,000 to the U.S. Forest Service and $65,000 to the National Forest Foundation.
Freeman said it hadn't been easy for the family to come up with the money and that Vincent was extremely remorseful.
"You really can't beat her up any more than she's beat herself up," he told the judge.
While Sandoval said it was a serious matter, he chuckled when he noted to Rachow that "you keep saying 'How you cut it.'"
"Bad pun, not intended," the prosecutor replied. "Dissect it."