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Criminal justice

Sweetwater County Officers Testing New, Less Lethal Restraints

in News/Criminal justice
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office is testing out a new, less lethal type of restraint in the wake of a string of officer-related deaths across the country.

The sheriff’s officers will test and evaluate a restraint called the “BolaWrap,” a handheld remote device that shoots an 8-foot long Kevlar cord with four pronged hooks, according to a post on the department’s Facebook account.

The restraint is designed to wrap around a person’s torso or legs from up to 25 feet away.

The tether keeps subjects from using their arms or legs, immobilizing them and allowing deputies to safely handle them without inflicting pain to achieve compliance.

There are more than 230 law enforcement agencies in 46 states using the BolaWrap as a restraint.

“We owe it to our deputies and the community we serve to explore and pursue the latest in public safety technology,” Sweetwater County Sheriff John Grossnickle said.

Grossnickle said he likes the minimal use of force and the fact the device doesn’t rely on pain to force compliance.

“It gives our deputies another option in safely dealing with someone who is noncompliant, without having to resort to using higher levels of force and while reducing the chance of injury to everyone involved,” the sheriff said.

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Lawsuit Against Casper Doctor Filed Too Late, Wyoming Supreme Court Says

in News/Wyoming Supreme Court/Criminal justice
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A woman’s lawsuit against a Casper doctor reached a court four days too late for her to pursue a negligence claim against him, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Friday upheld a lower court’s decision against Merry Candelaria, finding her lawsuit against Dr. Mahesh Karandikar was filed four days after the statute of limitations expired in her claim against him.

According to the ruling, Karandikar performed seven surgeries on Candelaria’s spine between October of 2013 and March of 2016.

Candelaria stopped seeing Karandikar in March of 2016 and in March of 2018, she filed a claim against him with the Wyoming Medical Review Panel, which dismissed her claim.

Candelaria mailed her lawsuit against Karandikar to state district court in Casper on June 28, 2018. The record showed she tried to file her action four days earlier, but the delivery of the complaint was delayed because the address did not include a suite number for the district court.

Karandikar asked for a summary judgment against Candelaria, arguing she filed her action more than two years after her claim against him surfaced, so the statute of limitations had run its course.

The state district court ruled that to have been filed within the two-year statute of limitations period, Candelaria should have filed her action by June 25, 2018 — four days before the action was filed on June 29.

Justices unanimously upheld the district court’s ruling.

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Drug Arrest Prompted By Cracked Windshield Upheld By Wyoming Supreme Court

in News/Criminal justice
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A cracked windshield was sufficient reason for Wyoming Highway Patrol officers to pull over a suspected drug dealer in a stop that led to his arrest on meth-related charges, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court unanimously upheld the conviction of Ryan Scott Simmons, who was convicted of possession, possession with intent to deliver and conspiracy to deliver meth after his 2019 arrest on Interstate 80 near Rawlins.

Justices rejected Simmons’ arguments that the evidence seized from the pickup truck he was riding in, including one-quarter pound of meth, should be suppressed because it was improperly pulled over by Highway Patrol troopers for having a cracked windshield.

According to the ruling, the state Division of Criminal Investigation had collected information indicating Simmons was selling meth in Carbon County and that his source was in Denver. DCI agents placed a GPS tracking device on the pickup truck Simmons used, which belonged to his father.

When the tracking device showed the truck had been driven from Rawlins to Denver and was returning to Wyoming, the DCI asked the troopers to stop Simmons if he committed a traffic violation in Carbon County.

Troopers watching for Simmons spotted the truck on Interstate 80 and noticed a crack in the windshield, the opinion said. Troopers stopped the vehicle, in which Simmons was a passenger, and searched it after a drug detection dog “alerted” to the presence of drugs in the vehicle.

The search revealed one-quarter pound of meth, a glass pipe with meth residue, scales and other paraphernalia.

Before his trial, Simmons asked that the evidence be suppressed because he was pulled over “for a crack on his windshield which did not obstruct the view of the road.” He argued that the troopers could not be sure that the crack obscured the driver’s view.

However, the trial court rejected the request, saying that in the opinion of the Highway Patrol troopers, the crack would have obstructed the driver’s view, a violation of state law.

The opinion written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden agreed with the trial court’s reasoning.

“We conclude the district court’s factual findings are not clearly erroneous,” the ruling said. “(The trooper) did not need to ‘determine … .that the driver’s view was impaired.’ He needed ‘reasonable suspicion — that is, a particularized and objective basis’ to suspect the driver’s view was obstructed, obscured or impaired … and he had as much under the circumstances of this case.“

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Court: Jury Should Hear Female Wyoming Trooper’s Sexual Harassment Case

in News/Criminal justice
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A jury should be allowed to hear allegations by a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer that she faced a hostile work environment because of her sex, a federal court has ruled.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Wednesday ordered a jury trial in the lawsuit filed by Delsa Brooke Sanderson, agreeing there are issues of fact that should be settled by a jury.

“A reasonable jury could find that Sanderson has raised genuine issues of material facts as to the severity and pervasiveness … of her hostile work environment claim,” the ruling said.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against the Wyoming Highway Patrol by Sanderson, the patrol’s first female K9 handler. 

According to the ruling, Sanderson joined the Highway Patrol in 2007 and received many positive reviews in her first seven years of service. 

In 2015, she was named to the patrol’s “Divison O,” a special division that provides protective services for the governor and legislators.

Upon joining the team, Sanderson said rumors circulated that she had obtained the position because she was having an affair with someone in a leadership position at the Highway Patrol.

She was also reprimanded for being too “familiar” with the deputy chief of staff to the governor and accused of flirting with a local law enforcement officer during a visit by the governor to the National High School Rodeo.

In addition, Sanderson felt ostracized by her colleagues, the ruling said, because she was ignored by fellow officers and was excluded from activities.

The ruling said in evidence submitted during the U.S. District Court hearing, some troopers expressed the view that “Division O as a whole does not accept females.”

She was demoted to her prior position in 2016 after a dispute with a dog trainer during a training exercise.

The U.S. District Court in Cheyenne granted the Highway Patrol’s request to issue a summary judgment against Sanderson, finding that her evidence of harassment did not show that harassment was severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

But the appeals court said Sanderson’s evidence of acts that occurred before she joined Division O actually raised questions about continuing sexual harassment that should be decided by a jury.

Those acts included rumors that she had sex with many of her colleagues and that she used flirting and sex to gain advantages such as a new patrol car.

“…(A) jury could find that other hostile acts, which were not explicitly sexual in nature, were nevertheless part of the sexual harassment against Sanderson and contributed to a sexually hostile work environment,” the ruling said.

In addition, the ruling said, Sanderson’s evidence raised questions about how many people within the Highway Patrol took part in the harassment.

The court sided with the District Court in its decision to grant a summary judgment in favor of the Highway Patrol in Sanderson’s argument that she was demoted in retaliation for her actions. The appeals court found that Sanderson should first exhaust administrative avenues open to her in that allegation before proceeding to court action on the complaint.

Part of Sanderson’s lawsuit has already been heard by a jury, an allegation of sexual discrimination. A jury in 2019 found in favor of the Highway Patrol.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Hitchhiker Murderer Sentence

in News/Criminal justice
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has upheld the newest sentence for a man convicted as a teenager in the 1980s of robbing and killing a hitchhiker.

The court unanimously upheld the sentence of Donald Clyde Davis, who was convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder and aggravated robbery in the 1982 death of a hitchhiker whose body was found in Johnson County. Davis was 17 at the time of the murder.

In 1983, he was sentenced to life without parole for the murder plus another 20 to 50 years in prison on the robbery conviction.

However, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Davis in 2013 asked for a new sentencing hearing in line with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but before the Wyoming court could hear the request, the Legislature changed sentencing laws to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Davis’ sentence was changed to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years and in 2015, he was paroled on the murder sentence to begin serving the 20- to 50-year sentence for aggravated robbery.

Davis challenged that sentence to the Wyoming Supreme Court, saying that between the more than 30 years he had already served on the murder charge and the 20- to 50-year sentence he still faced on the robbery conviction, it amounted to a life sentence in violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Wyoming justices agreed and in 2019 ordered a new sentencing hearing for Davis.

The state district court in Johnson County held a new sentencing hearing and reduced Davis’ sentence on the robbery conviction to 12 to 50 years in prison.

Davis, in his latest appeal, argued the sentence again was too long and would amount to a sentence of life in prison.But the court, in its unanimous decision, found that the sentence meets two standards to be considered constitutional — if the minimum amount of time a juvenile is to spend in prison is less than 45 years and if the juvenile could potentially be released before reaching the age of 61.

Justices agreed that the reduced minimum sentence for the aggravated robbery conviction, 12 years, would fall within those standards.

Davis also argued that the lower court abused its discretion by sentencing him to 12 to 50 years in prison, but justices said the sentence was warranted.

“The court’s … aggravated robbery sentence reflects not just the court’s belief that ‘it is not appropriate to release Mr. Davis immediately, as there are a number of services that he should receive the benefit of before being placed upon supervision’ but also a broader determination that Mr. Davis is not ready for immediate release,” the ruling said. “Under these circumstances, we conclude that Mr. Davis has not met the high bar to overturn a sentencing decision on an abuse of discretion standard.”

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National Trucking Company Announces They Won’t Deliver to Towns That Defund The Police; Wyoming Likely Unaffected

in News/Crime/Criminal justice
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A national trucking company announced on Wednesday that it would no longer deliver to any municipalities that are pushing to defund the police.

A cursory examination of city council action in the cowboy state shows that Wyoming would likely not be affected by the announcement although protestors in Laramie and Jackson have vocally supported the anti-law enforcement sentiment.

Mike Kucharski, owner of JKC Trucking, told FOX News that defunding police is an awful idea as the cargo on its trucks are prime targets for thieves.

“Our first priority is to support our drivers and their safety when they are on the road,” Kucharski said.

He said a secondary concern was over insurance and whether he would have coverage in areas that defund the police.

“Another issue that I am seeing in the future is I have cargo insurance, liability insurance, fiscal damage insurance, and I am very curious how when I renew my contracts at the end of the year, if there is going to be language — if I am going to even have coverage going into these places,” Kucharski said.

Although nothing official has happened in Laramie and Jackson, protestors in both towns have actively supported the concept of defunding or dismantling law enforcement.

One protest group in Laramie suggested reallocating some police funds to pay for “local school lunch debt.”

The organization also petitioned for “an immediate hiring freeze” of police officers, with the overall goal being to reduce the number of law enforcement officers in the community.

In Jackson, the group Act Now JH said its focus was “defunding the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and funding organizations that contribute to the well-being of our community.”

“We’re not trying to get rid of all police officers immediately. We’re advocating for equitable emergency response,” said a spokesman for the group.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Denies University Of Wyoming Gun Case Appeal

in News/University of Wyoming/Criminal justice
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Supreme Court will not hear a challenge to the University of Wyoming’s ability to regulate firearms on its property, a divided court has decided.

Justices, in a 3-2 decision, declined to review the case of Lyle Williams, who was charged in 2018 with trespass for carrying a firearm into the university’s conference center in violation of UW rules.

As is traditional, the order issued by the Supreme Court on Tuesday did not disclose the reasons why the justices chose not to review the case. However, it did note that Chief Justice Michael Davis and Justice Keith Kautz believed Williams’ petition for a review of a district court judge’s previous ruling met the standards for Supreme Court action.

The state’s rules for appeals to the Supreme Court say that for a request for review to be granted, the issue to be reviewed must involve “a controlling question of law as to which there are substantial bases for difference of opinion …”

The order means the decision of District Judge Tori Kricken upholding the university’s ability to regulate firearms on its property remains in place.

The case stems from a citation issued to Williams, an Evanston resident, in 2018 while attending the Wyoming Republican Party’s convention in Laramie. The convention was held in the UW conference center.

Williams, who was carrying a handgun in the center, was asked by university police to leave the building because of UW rules banning firearms on university property and was cited for trespass, a misdemeanor.

Williams challenged the citation on the grounds that state law forbids local governments from regulating firearms.

But Kricken ruled that the university is an “alter ego” of the state and as such can regulate firearms on its property. Kricken also rejected Williams’ arguments that the rule is contrary to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, finding that there are limits to the amendment’s reach and that universities must be able to regulate firearms in “sensitive places” to protect students.

“Simply stated, the regulation and prohibition of the possession of firearms in sensitive places falls outside the scope of the Second Amendment,” she wrote.

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Wyoming Department of Corrections To Test All Inmates, Staff For Coronavirus

in News/Coronavirus/Criminal justice
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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Department of Corrections is planning to test all of its staff, contract employees and inmates beginning next week for the coronavirus due to a spike in cases in the state.

According to a news release from the department and a notice to the inmate population, Director Bob Lampert explained there had been no reported cases in either the staff or inmates at DOC institutions as of Wednesday.

However, due to an uptick in coronavirus cases in various Wyoming communities, officials felt that mass testing was the best measure.

“We … want to continue to do all we can to prevent its introduction among our incarcerated adults and the staff who supervise them,” the release said.

Testing will start next week and initially, the staff will conduct 100% testing at each facility, beginning with the Honor Farm in Riverton, the Women’s Center in Lusk, the Honor Conservation Camp in Newcastle and then the two larger facilities, the Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington and the State Penitentiary in Rawlins.

Staff from Corizon, a prison health care company, will conduct the tests, which will be sent to the appropriate laboratory and paid for by the Wyoming Department of Health. Tests will be completed at no cost to the individual and won’t be submitted for insurance claims.

Results are expected to come back within two days of samples being sent to the lab. Movement between housing units, as well as to and from the tested facility, will be limited for a few days, pending test results.

Inmates arriving at an already-tested facility from another location that hasn’t undergone 100% testing will be quarantined and tested, even if they are arriving from another DOC facility.

If a positive test result is found, immediate action will be taken to initiate contact tracing and containment protocols, the release said.

The tests are required. Inmates who refuse testing will be placed under a mandatory quarantine for 14 days with subsequent testing opportunities, even if they don’t have symptoms.

Inmates with symptoms will be quarantined, as will inmates newly received from outside of the WDOC. These two groups will be tested twice during the quarantine process and prior to release into the general population.

Lampert said he was hopeful that the testing would be completed by the end of August. Following the completion of the first round of tests at an institution, ongoing surveillance testing of 20% of the staff and inmates will be conducted every other week until the DOH determines it is no longer necessary.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Murder Charge Properly Dismissed Under ‘Stand Your Ground’

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A state district court in Natrona County properly dismissed murder charges against a Casper man under the state’s “stand your ground” law, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court ruled Monday that Jason Tsosie John met all the legal requirements to use the law when he asked for a dismissal of the charges filed in connection with the shooting death of Wesley Willow in August 2018.

Wyoming’s Legislature in 2018 changed its laws regarding self-defense to specify that a person who uses reasonable force to protect himself from injury or loss will not be prosecuted. The changes also said that when a person enters a home by force, it can be assumed that he or she is doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving violence. The changes also said that a person faced with an illegal intruder in their home is under no obligation to retreat before using reasonable force.

John cited these laws in asking for the dismissal of the charge of first-degree murder filed against him in Willow’s death, saying he used appropriate force to protect himself from death or serious bodily injury.

According to the ruling, Willow and a woman John had dated briefly were celebrating the woman’s birthday at a Casper hotel when John started sending the woman texts. The texts escalated in intensity and Willow ultimately called John to find out where he lived.

Willow, the woman and another man drove to the area where John lived and approached his home. As they approached, they saw John standing in front of his home, carrying a rifle.

The ruling said John warned the group to stay back, but Willow ran at him. As he neared, John fired nine shots, two of which hit Willow in the chest and six of which hit him in the back. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Prosecutors charged John with first-degree murder, saying the messages he exchanged with Willow and the fact he was waiting for Willow with a rifle showed he acted with premeditation.

But John asked that the charges be dismissed, saying he acted reasonably to protect his life against someone who had entered his home using force.

Supreme Court justices agreed that John had met all the requirements to be immune from prosecution under the “stand your ground” law.

“Mr. John reasonably feared imminent peril of death or serious bodily injury … when he used deadly force because Mr. Willow was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering … his home …” the ruling said.

The ruling also noted that John yelled for Willow to stop his advance and took several steps backward before shooting.

Prosecutors alleged John used excessive force by shooting Willow eight times, but justices disagreed, pointing to a district court ruling that the situation “escalated in mere seconds.”

“We find no error in (the district court’s) conclusion that Mr. John used necessary force,” the ruling said.

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Group opposing death penalty opens Wyoming chapter

in News/Criminal justice
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By Robert Geha, Cowboy State Daily

An organization made up of political conservatives seeking an end to the death penalty opened a chapter in Wyoming this week.

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty officially opened a chapter in Wyoming during a news conference in Cheyenne on Thursday. The group has chapters in 10 other states.

Kyle Taylor, the Wyoming coordinator for the group, described the organization as a network of conservatives who do not believe capital punishment fits within their principles.

“As a conservative, I believe in small government and I believe the death penalty is a huge government overreach and a very big failed government program,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “I believe in valuing life and we know that executing our own citizens does not value the sanctity of life.”

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, last year sponsored a bill during the Legislature’s general session that would have done away with the death penalty. The bill was approved in the House, but died in the Senate.

Olsen said the death penalty’s most vocal opponents in the past have been liberals and the Catholic church, but he added the issue actually crosses political and religious lines.

“It’s an everybody issue and that’s why you’ll find people from all faiths and people from all political backgrounds,” he said.

Mike Leman, a deacon for the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, said for the church, the issue is one of the sanctity of life.

“We look at it as consistency in respecting the dignity of human life,” he said. “First of all, recognizing the difficulty of victims and victims’ families. But we don’t think (the death penalty) is something that gives victims what they’re hoping for, the ultimate healing.”

The Legislature’s budget session begins Feb. 10. Two-thirds of both the House and Senate must support a review of any bill not related to the budget — like a death penalty bill — before it can be considered.

Death penalty repeal supporter sees chance for bill in 2020

in News/Criminal justice
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure aimed at repealing Wyoming’s death penalty may stand a better chance of winning approval in the Legislature’s 2020 session than it has in the past, according to a supporter.

Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said as people have become more aware of the problems associated with the death penalty, they have been more prone to discuss it with their legislators.

“The community is much more aware of what’s going on and they’re much more involved,” he said. “So I think with that involvement and more personal conversations with our senators to make them understand particularly the fiscal consequences of not repealing the death penalty, I think we have a better shot of getting it all the way through this time.”

Olsen proposed a measure during the Legislature’s general session earlier this year that would have abolished the death penalty and replaced it with a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The bill was approved in the House on a vote of 36-21, but was defeated in the Senate, where it received only 12 “yes” votes from the state’s 30 senators.

The 2020 session is a budget session, which means all bills not related to the budget need to win a two-third majority vote to even be considered by the Legislature.

Olsen’s main argument in opposition to the death penalty has been the expense involved in the prosecution and unavoidable appeals that accompany a death penalty case.

In addition, he said, the Legislature needs to consider what may happen if an innocent person is condemned to death.

“If we got it wrong and executed the individual, there is no way to undo that,” he said.

Opponents of Olsen’s bill argued during this year’s session that the death penalty provides justice for the victims of murder. Prosecutors argued that its elimination would take away a valuable plea bargaining tool.

Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said he believes the death penalty may actually be more humane than life in prison.

“Caging someone up like an animal for some years of their lives just doesn’t make much sense,” he said. “Our whole world is based on contributing to society in some fashion. And locking somebody up forever just doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Controversial hiring freeze for Cheyenne scrapped

in Economic development/News/Criminal justice
Downtown Development Authority
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By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

CHEYENNE – A controversial proposal to enact a temporary hiring freeze in the city’s $56 million budget for Fiscal Year 2020 was eliminated upon third and final reading before the Cheyenne City Council’s Committee of the Whole on Wednesday evening.

The hiring freeze, which had been proposed by Councilman Dicky Shanor as part of a larger amendment that was approved unanimously the previous week, sparked criticism on social media from Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak. Kozak contended that a hiring freeze would leave CPD understaffed by more than two dozen officers, which would in turn require CPD to suspend previously scheduled training and reassign the public information officer and half of the department’s school resources officers to the patrol division in order to maintain general public safety.

Shanor said in interviews he was concerned with “the politicization of law enforcement” he felt was evidenced by Kozak’s statement, which singled out Shanor by name. That prompted Mayor Marian Orr to defend the chief, characterizing his statements as advocacy for the public’s right to know how a hiring freeze could impact their safety.

Despite the rancor, however, Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting – the nine councilmen minus the mayor – was relatively quick and quiet, as was the decision to scrap the hiring freeze altogether via an amendment. Even so, Council President Rocky Case noted early on that the large public turnout he and other council members expected as a result of the hiring freeze debate had not materialized. Only two members of the public chose to speak, including Stephanie Lowe, president of the Cheyenne Public Employees Association, who asked the committee to reconsider its recommendation to cap the total number of city employees for fiscal year 2020 at 578.1 positions, and instead give department directors the leeway to hire as needed, provided they have the budget and data to support each position.

“Staff have created a great plan for the city and I’m concerned about crippling departments that may prevent important work from getting done,” Lowe said. “Let’s not all forget the growing size of our community, which needs a growing workforce to keep up with maintenance at the least, but also to keep attracting new businesses and residents to work here.”

But with the hiring freeze lifted, committee members opted to leave the employee cap in place. Instead, a portion of the funds that would have been saved by the hiring freeze will instead be made up through $100,000 in reversions – budgeted funds that go unspent and return to city reserves – anticipated  at the end of FY 2019.

Committee members also heard from local physician Dr. Jasper “J.J.” Chen, who argued against cutting funds from the Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, suggesting that the city instead define clear outcomes it wants to see from the DDA, then track its progress to determine future funding.

“We should do this instead of making the more dramatic and drastic decisions to take away a substantial portion of the DDA’s funding without empirical data justifying doing so,” Chen said. 

Mayor Orr’s initial budget proposal allocated just $100,000 for the DDA, down from $390,000 this year and $450,499 the previous fiscal year. But once amendment markups were concluded Wednesday, the DDA was ultimately budgeted for $290,000 for FY 2020, while the Cheyenne Animal Shelter will receive an additional $107,500, for a total budget of $612,500.

Committee members also rejected an amendment proposed by Ward III Councilman Ken Esquibel that would have cut Cheyenne’s $50,000 annual membership in the Wyoming Association of Municipalities. Esquibel argued that, with a citizen legislature only in session a maximum of 60 days in a year, WAM’s lobbying efforts were costing Cheyenne $1,666 per day, even as local legislators generally vote in the city’s interests. 

“We’re basically throwing $50,000 into the wind,” he said. 

Committee member Mark Rinne pointed out that Mayor Orr is going to be on the Resolutions Committee for WAM this year, and that the organization recently gained a new director in J. David Fraser.

He added that council members had previously discussed the need to participate in more WAM events, and Esquibel’s amendment ultimately failed, with Esquibel himself the only affirmative vote.

With Wednesday’s amendments thus dispensed with, the latest incarnation of the city’s FY 2020 budget will come before the full City Council for final approval at 6 p.m. Monday, June 10.

Wyoming Corrections: Accommodating faith in prison challenging, essential

in Government spending/News/Criminal justice
The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular,.
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By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Adequately and safely meeting the constitutionally guaranteed religious rights of the state’s inmates can be challenging, according to a spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

“Inmates arguably have more religious protections than (the average citizen) to be frank,” WDOC Compliance Manager C.J. Young said. “This is probably one of the tougher areas for the justice system around the country.”

In addition to First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, inmates are also covered by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“If an inmate has a sincerely held belief, (RLUIPA)  shifts the burden on to (WDOC) to justify why we can’t accommodate that,” Young explained. “We have to accommodate that belief unless it’s completely outrageous like requesting to carry around an axe.”

The WDOC is not only charged with accommodating the inmate’s beliefs, but accommodating them in the least restrictive manner possible, he said.

“An inmate requested to wear a certain type of religious item he wouldn’t normally be allowed to wear,” Young said. “We did some research with nearby facilities, and we found there hadn’t really been any problems. So we allowed it, but with the minor exception he could only wear the item in the chapel.”

Items of belief

Religious items in the correctional system fall into two categories: personal property, which is owned by the inmates, and group property, which is owned by WDOC.

“When it comes to personal property, we have a matrix of religious property that inmates can possess,” Young said. “That list can vary depending on the facility. At the Wyoming Honor Farm, inmates work with tools daily, so having a metal crucifix might not be a big deal, but in maximum security at the State Penitentiary … we’re probably not going to give (the inmate) metal, so we might find a plastic or paper crucifix they can wear.”

Inmates can acquire personal religious items through the WDOC commissary or through WDOC-approved donations from religious groups.

According to Wyoming’s checkbook provided to the public in January by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines, the WDOC spent about $2,600 in 2018 with Al Hannah, an Islamic clothing provider. In 2017, the WDOC spent about $2,200 with same company, and in 2016, the agency spent about $2,400 with Al Hannah.

WDOC Public Information Officer Mark Horan said the purchases were to stock the commissary with “halal shampoo, lotion and soap products,” products prepared according to Muslim practices.Because the commissary is operated as an enterprise fund, a self-supporting fund that provides goods or services to the public for a fee, Young said the personal items purchased through it are not paid for with tax dollars.

“What the (commissary) makes, they then use to purchase items to sell to inmates,” he said. 

The only commissary expense that is funded through the WDOC general fund is staff salaries, Young added.

The store can mark up the price of some items to turn a profit, but Horan said religious items cannot be marked up.

Group items, on the other hand, are not owned by the prisoners, nor can they be purchased by the prisoners.

Group items are available to inmates at predetermined times, such as religious services, and typically, under the supervision of a chaplain.

“Take Asatru (a Norse-pantheon religion) for instance, they can have a drinking horn in group property,” Young explained. “But, they can’t have that property in their cells.”

Religious Privileges

The WDOC accommodates at least 25 religions throughout the prison system, and Christianity is the most popular, Young said.

“The department doesn’t tell anybody that you can’t believe in a god or religious practice,” he said. “What we do is recognize certain faith groups that are prevalent enough and don’t pose any risks that we allow them to have privileges inside our facilities.”

Islam, Wicca, Satanism, Judaism and Asatru are among the recognized religions, and recently, Young said the WDOC added humanitarianism to the list, which is regularly reviewed and updated.

“We try to be flexible,” he said. “When inmates come in, if there’s a new practice or a new faith group, we try to give everything a fair shot.”

If an inmate wants the WDOC to recognize a new belief system or religious practice, Young said they can follow a paperwork process lining out their request. The WDOC reviews the form and either grants or denies the request.

A denial can be appealed, Young said.

‘An opportunity to reset’

Accommodating faiths and belief systems can be difficult in a rural state with limited religious support networks, Young said.

“The only rabbis in Wyoming are in Jackson and Cheyenne, and we don’t have a facility in either of those,” he explained. “When it comes to some of the earth-based religions like Asatru or Wicca, we’re looking at trying to find someone in Denver or on the East Coast that’s any type of professional in their field.”

Because of this, WDOC relies heavily on religious volunteers, who can offer services and guidance to inmates.

Beyond constitutional requirements, access to religion is an important part of the prison system, he said.

“The public and even us in corrections, we can have a tendency to be jaded,” Young said. “There is an old joke that God lives in maximum security prisons, or at least, that’s where everyone finds him. Or, ‘You should thought about being religious before you committed the crime.’”

On the path to reconciliation and rehabilitation, however, faith is one of the few tools available to inmates.

“When you’re in prison, there’s only three things you get: food, a very small amount of property, and religion,” Young said. “For many, faith is opportunity to reset their lives or mindsets.”

To learn more about volunteering for WDOC religious programming or donating religious items to inmate’s religious groups, call the WDOC at 307-777-7208.

Governor signs public records, animal cruelty bill

in Energy/News/Education/Transparency/Criminal justice
Wyoming Legislature bills signed by Governor Gordon
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By Cowboy State Daily

Bills creating a felony crime of animal abuse and setting a deadline for the production of public records were among a group signed into law on Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

HB 235, one of the last bills to be approved by the Legislature in the closing hours of its general session, makes it a felony for a person to commit aggravated cruelty to animals resulting in the death or euthanasia of an animal or to abuse an animal with an intent to kill it.

The law takes effect July 1. Currently, a person convicted of animal abuse can only be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The public records law, SF 57, sets a 30-day deadline for the release of public documents. It also authorizes the hiring of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Under existing law, there was no time limit for government agencies to release public documents.

Other bills signed into law Friday included:

  • SF 159, designed to encourage utilities to sell old coal-fired electric plants rather than retire them;
  • HB 103, requiring doctors who perform abortions to report those procedures to the state Office of Vital Records and requiring the the data be compiled into a public report;
  • SF 122, creating the “Wyoming Works Program,” which will provide grants for students attending technical programs at community colleges, and 
  • HB 99, creating a state “Public Lands Day.”

Gordon has until late March to sign bills into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Wyoming’s 65th Legislature: General Session Review

in News/Health care/Taxes/Education/Agriculture/Criminal justice
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It’s all over for this year. Check out our bitesized rundown of what passed and what failed in the 65th Wyoming Legislature’s General Session. Stay tuned this weekend for more analysis on the session highs and lows with our Robert Geha.

Thanks for watching and be sure to follow Cowboy State Daily for our expanded statewide coverage of Wyoming news coming to your feed in the days ahead.

In Brief: Felony penalty restored to animal cruelty bill

in News/Criminal justice
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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A last-minute compromise in Wyoming’s Legislature this week restored a felony penalty to the state’s animal cruelty laws.

HB 235, as it goes to the governor’s desk, would make it a felony to abuse an animal with the intent of killing it or to engage in “aggravated cruelty” that results in an animal’s death. The bill had originally made repeated offenses of the state’s animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. However, the Senate removed all the language regarding the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes.

A compromise was reached late on Wednesday, the Legislature’s final day of its general session, restoring the felony penalty of up to two years in prison.

In Brief: Animal cruelty compromise reached, no felony for repeat offenders

in News/Criminal justice
Alt = Wyoming animal cruelty bill reaches compromise
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By Cowboy State Daily

A compromise was reached Wednesday on a bill that was originally intended to create a felony penalty for animal cruelty. However, the bill no longer contains any language regarding the enhanced penalty for repeat offenders of animal cruelty laws.

HB 235 originally would have made anyone convicted of animal abuse more than once guilty of a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all of the language pertaining to the enhanced penalty and the House rejected the changes to its bills.

The compromise approved by the House on Wednesday still leaves the felony language out of the bill. However, as it stands, the bill would allow a judge to bar a person from seeing or caring for a pet if that person had been convicted in a domestic abuse case.

If the Senate approves the changes, the bill will head to the desk of Gov. Mark Gordon for his signature.

In Brief: House rejects significant changes to animal cruelty bill

in News/Criminal justice
Wyoming animal cruelty penalties
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By Cowboy State Daily

Significant Senate changes to a bill originally designed to create a felony crime of animal cruelty were rejected Monday by representatives.

Members of the House on Monday voted not to adopt the Senate changes to HB 235 and instead to create a “joint conference committee” to meet with senators to address the differences in the two versions of the bill.

As approved by the House, the bill would have made repeated violations of animal cruelty laws a felony punishable by up to two years in prison. The Senate removed all language pertaining to the felony crime, leaving intact only a section that would let judges bar people from having contact with pets if they are convicted of a domestic abuse charge.

The three-member joint conference committees from both the House and Senate will be charged with reaching a compromise on the bill. If no compromise can be reached, the bill will die.

Income tax, party switching dead, lodging tax alive

in News/Taxes/Criminal justice
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By Cowboy State Daily

The last of three bills that would have put restrictions on when voters can change party affiliations was among a number to die this week as the Legislature neared the end of its general session.

Legislators looking to wrap up their general session by Wednesday put in long hour this week finishing their work on a number of bills, eliminating several controversial measures.

HB 106 was the last of three bills that would have set time limits for people to change party affiliation. It would have set a deadline of May 1 for such changes. It was defeated in a 14-11 vote in its first Senate review.

Another bill killed would have imposed an income tax on large retail companies headquartered outside of Wyoming. HB 220 died without getting a review in a Senate committee.

Moving ahead, however, was a bill that would set a statewide lodging tax of 5 percent. HB 66 is set for a final vote in the Senate on Monday.

Approved with significant changes by the Senate was a bill originally designed to create a felony crime for animal abuse. HB 235 was amended to remove all language about the felony crime.

Animal abuse measure amended to remove felony language

in News/Criminal justice
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have made it a felony to repeatedly abuse animals is heading for a Senate review, but without the felony penalty language.

The Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday approved HB 235, but removed all language strengthening the penalty for animal abuse.

As originally worded, anyone convicted more than once on a charge of cruelty to animals could have been charged with a felony and sentenced to up to two years in prison. Currently, animal abuse is a misdemeanor.

Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, proposed the amendment stripping the felony language out of the bill. She said as written, the language did not specifically define what an animal is and she feared it would not be approved by the Senate.

Steinmetz said if enforced, existing laws would be sufficient to address the problem of animal cruelty.

“There are a lot of penalties and statutes on the books that deal with that,” she said. “I think that they’re probably not being enforced as much as folks would like to see.”

The bill still contains language that would let a judge bar a person convicted in a domestic abuse case from owning or caring for an animal.

The bill is on the list of measures to be considered in the Senate’s “Committee of the Whole.”

Senator predicts effort to repeal death penalty will continue

in News/Criminal justice
Wyoming death penalty repeal Senator Brian Boner
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By Cowboy State Daily

Efforts to repeal Wyoming’s death penalty will probably continue despite the Legislature’s decision this week to kill a bill that would have eliminated the penalty, according to a Douglas legislator.

HB 145 would have made life without parole the harshest sentence that could be handed down in criminal cases. The bill was approved by Wyoming’s House, but defeated by the Senate in an 18-12 vote.

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said he believes the repeal effort will continue and gain more support in the future.

“As time goes on, I’m sure that we will continue to gain ground and eventually the death penalty will be repealed,” he said.

Supports of the bill had argued that the death penalty is too expensive for the state, given the number of appeals that generally accompany such cases.

Boner attributed the death of the measure this year to legislators who may remember when the death penalty was an effective deterrent to violent crime.

“Especially some of our older members probably remember when the death penalty was effective, when we did use it,” he said. “But that’s no longer the case.”

In Brief: Death penalty repeal killed in first Senate review

in News/Criminal justice
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By Cowboy State Daily

A measure that would have repealed Wyoming’s death penalty failed to pass its first review by the full Senate on Thursday.

HB 145 would have made life without the possibility of parole the harshest penalty that could be handed down in a Wyoming criminal case. It died in the Senate on a vote of 12-18 in its review in “Committee of the Whole,” the first reading of a bill by the full body.

Proponents of the bill argued that the death penalty is too expensive for the state, given the large number of appeals usually surrounding such cases and the cost of housing death row inmates.

The bill cleared the House last week on a vote of 36-21 and won unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee before being rejected on the Senate floor.

Death penalty repeal headed to Senate floor

in News/Criminal justice
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By Cowboy State Daily (updated: Feb. 13, 2019 7PM MT)

A proposed repeal of Wyoming’s death penalty is moving to the Senate floor for debate by the full body.

HB 145, already approved by the House, was passed on a 4-0 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. If approved in its Senate review, it would make life without parole the harshest penalty possible in Wyoming.

Testimony in support of the bill before the committee focused largely on the cost of death penalty cases due to the multiple appeals involved and the cost of housing death row inmates.

Others, however, noted that since the death penalty has been reinstated nationally, 164 death row inmates have had their penalties or convictions overturned.

Gary Drinkard, mistakenly held for five years on Alabama’s death row, said life without parole is a far worse prospect than the death penalty.

“You get to spend the rest of your life in there and it’s torment,” he said. “It’s torment every day. You’ve got to deal with idiots every day.”

Matt Redle, the former prosecuting attorney for Sheridan County, said the issue is not one of equal justice because there is no such thing in murder cases.

“No matter what that verdict is and no matter what that sentence is, (families) don’t get their loved one back,” he said.

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