A fatal shootout resulting from a Thermopolis police sergeant breaking into suspect’s home may have exposed a contradiction in Wyoming’s self-defense laws, but lawmakers are urging caution on making sudden changes to the law.
“It’s tragic when a case gets pushed to this point,” Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, told Cowboy State Daily. “It just reminds us that police work in a very complicated legal environment and we expect them to do their very best. And sometimes that doesn’t come about.”
A special prosecutor’s decision released to Cowboy State Daily last week revealed that Thermopolis Police Department Sgt. Mike Mascorro broke through the door of Buck Laramore’s trailer-house home April 28 to arrest Laramore for lying about his age and name during an investigation.
Laramore shot and wounded Mascorro, who fired back and killed Laramore.
Because of a caveat in the law that strips people of the right to shoot police officers who enter their homes lawfully or unlawfully while on duty, Laramore wasn’t legally justified to shoot Mascorro.
Mascorro wasn’t legally justified to fire back under Wyoming’s Stand Your Ground law, which only gives people the right to fire back if they’re someplace legally.
Under the two clashing laws, neither shooting was justified.
The prosecutor hinted in his decision that the Wyoming Legislature should address this contradiction.
“Whether this contradiction was contemplated by the Legislature is unclear,” wrote Sweetwater County Attorney Dan Erramouspe, the special prosecutor on the case, in his decision on the shooting. “In criminal prosecution, words matter as they define the elements of the alleged crime and/or affirmative defense.”
Ultimately, Erramouspe had to turn to Wyoming case law to settle the contradiction. The case law cleared Mascorro.
Watch For Pitfalls
Washut, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, told Cowboy State Daily that lawmakers may contemplate slipping the word “lawfully” into the caveat that protected Mascorro. But they should discuss it first, he said.
“It’s important to note that what we have here is the opinion of one attorney,” said Washut. “What I’ve learned on Judiciary is, if you get multiple attorneys in the same room, talking about the same case, you’ll get different opinions.”
Indeed, the House Judiciary Committee has three attorneys serving on it as state representatives. Those are Reps. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton; Barry Crago, R-Buffalo (both prosecutors); and Ken Chestek, D-Laramie (a retired law professor).
Oakley declined to comment on the case.
Crago did not respond by Tuesday to a Friday text and phone call.
What A Quagmire
Chestek characterized Mascorro’s case as a quagmire with “no obvious right answer.”
If he were still teaching law, he’d assign this case to his students as a challenging research problem, Chestek told Cowboy State Daily.
He said a court will likely have to address the case, though it will probably make it into court on a civil lawsuit rather than a criminal prosecution.
As to changing the law, Chestek, like Washut, isn’t reaching for quick answers.
“If a proposed amendment to this statute comes before the Judiciary Committee at some point, I will take a closer look at the issue,” he said.
Washut noted that the Judiciary Committee’s interim work is almost finished and it’s too late for the committee to tackle a new bill, but individual lawmakers still can bring self-defense amendments to the 2024 lawmaking session on their own.
Should the Wyoming Supreme Court address the case, the Judiciary Committee also will study that decision, Washut added.
Does DCI Have A Suggestion?
On the Senate Judiciary Committee, two non-lawyers who responded to Cowboy State Daily’s requests for comment urged caution as well.
Sen. Dan Furphy, R-Laramie, said he’s not certain the Legislature can fix this one.
“We do have laws and procedures already in place – that weren’t followed correctly,” said Furphy. “So, I don’t see a need for legislation in this matter, at this time.”
However, Furphy said, if the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation has suggested repairs in mind, it can approach the committee.
Adding the word “lawfully” to the caveat may have helped in this case, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally a good idea, said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, who also serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“If we were to go into that statute and add the word ‘lawfully,’ then a suspect or potential shooter can make a determination in their mind (on) whether something’s lawful or not before deciding to … fire,” said Case. “That’s pretty complicated and you’re dealing with situations where people are very desperate.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not horrified by this,” Case continued. “And I’m glad there are civil remedies.”
He also floated the idea of the Wyoming Attorney General pursuing other, non-homicide criminal charges against Mascorro.
“It sounds to me like we could amend the criminal statute to bring consequences to (a) law enforcement person acting unlawfully, but I haven’t done an analysis of those laws,” he added.
Nah, Not A Quagmire
Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, said he doesn’t see a quagmire in the law at all.
“The police officer broke the law by trespassing without a warrant and at that point he gave up governmental immunity,” said Jennings, adding that he was posting the Cowboy State Daily question and his response to his Facebook page.
Criminal trespass is a misdemeanor in Wyoming, punishable by up to six months in jail and $750 in fines.
Jennings might have been alluding to case law dictating that government employees don’t enjoy qualified immunity in civil lawsuits if they knew they were violating someone’s rights during the contested act.
Jennings did not respond to a follow-up email.
Cowboy State Daily emailed, texted or called every member of the two Judiciary Committees, but most did not respond by publication time Tuesday.
Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, played a fruitless game of phone tag with Cowboy State Daily, after which he could not be reached via multiple return calls.
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.