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Wyoming Supreme Court

Supreme Court Orders Sentence Adjustment For Casper Man Who Killed Mother

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A Casper man sentenced to life in prison for murdering his mother was improperly sentenced to another 10 to 15 years in the burglary that led to the killing, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Justices ruled the district court that sentenced Andrew Wayne Steplock improperly sentenced him on convictions of both felony murder and burglary in violation of previous court rulings.

“We have previously held that ‘the imposition of multiple punishments for felony murder and the underlying felony violates the double jeopardy clauses of the United States and Wyoming constitutions,’” said the ruling written by Justice Kari Gray. “As a result, sentencing Mr. Steplock to 10 to 15 years on the underlying felony — aggravated burglary — for first-degree felony murder was improper.”

According to the ruling, in February 2019, Steplock broke into the home of his parents to steal money. When he was confronted by his mother, he shot her.

Steplock confessed to the incident after his arrest near Denver.

Steplock was charged with second-degree murder, aggravated burglary and felony murder. Felony murder is a charge that is leveled when a person is killed in the course of the commission of a felony — such as a burglary.

For purposes of prosecution and sentencing, it is considered the same as a charge of first-degree murder.

Steplock was sentenced to life in prison for felony murder, 55 years to life for second-degree murder and 10 to 15 years for aggravated burglary.

But justices said a person can’t be sentenced for both felony murder and the crime that led up to the murder.

As a result, the district court in Natrona County was ordered to adjust Steplock’s sentence.

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Lander Not Immune From Lawsuit In Lost Bat Case, Supreme Court Rules

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The City of Lander is not immune from a lawsuit filed because a police officer lost a bat, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices on Tuesday sent back to state district court a case in which a family sued the city because family members were forced to undergo rabies treatment after a bat found in their home escaped before it could be tested for rabies.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, ruled that the state district court improperly granted the city a decision in its favor when its lawyers claimed the city was immune from the lawsuit.

“The district court erred procedurally and as a matter of law when it granted summary judgment to the city and we conclude the city was not entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law on the undisputed facts of record,” the opinion said.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed against the city of Lander by Calli and Phillip Cornella and their three children.

According to the ruling, the Cornellas called the Animal Control Division of the Lander Police Department in September 2016 to ask for help in removing a bat from their home. An officer responded to the home and captured the bat, which he was going to take to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for rabies testing.

However, before the bat was delivered, it escaped. As a precaution, the family was advised to get rabies vaccines, which cost $83,000 for all five family members.

The family sued the city in July 2019 seeking $133,000 in damages, arguing in part that the police officer was negligent in his transportation of the bat.

However, the city filed a request for a ruling removing it from the lawsuit on the grounds it was protected from legal action by the Wyoming Governmental Claims Act. The act generally provides immunity from lawsuits to governmental entities as long as their employees are acting within the scope of their duties.

The state district court agreed, finding that negligent transportation is not recognized as a cause of action under the Governmental Claims Act. As a result, it did not review the merits of the case.

But justices unanimously disagreed, ruling that the base cause for the Cornellas’ action was negligence, which can be a reason for action under the act.

Justices ordered the lower court to review the Cornellas’ allegations to determine the merits of the case.

“As a result, the city is not entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law and we must reverse the district court’s ruling and remand for further proceedings,” the opinion said. “The remaining elements of the Cornellas’ negligence claim, and any defenses the city may raise, are questions that need to be addressed…”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Overturns Man’s Assault Conviction

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man’s conviction on a charge of aggravated assault and battery must be overturned because testimony another dispute with his wife should not have been heard at his trial, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Wednesday ordered a new trial for Charles Kincaid, who was convicted in September 2020 by a jury and sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison.

Kincaid was charged in connection with allegations he pointed a gun at his wife Ashton Crain in February 2020 while at the Rock Springs apartment they shared.

During his trial, Kincaid’s defense attorney questioned Crain about her mental health, medications and panic attacks. She confirmed she had been prescribed antidepressants, an anxiety medication and a medication for nightmares, although she had not taken any medication on the night of the incident.

In response to questions from a prosecutor, Crain said she was prescribed the medications after an incident in November 2019 in Park City, Utah, when she and Kincaid, who was intoxicated, argued about whether he should leave the hotel room they were sharing.

Although police were called to the hotel room, no charges were ever filed. Crain asked officers to remove firearms and a knife from Kincaid and then spent the night in the bathroom.

Kincaid’s defense attorneys objected to the incident being raised, but the judge in the case said the matter could be discussed because defense attorneys had asked Crain about her medications and why she took them.

State legal rules forbid prosecutors from introducing evidence during a trial of other crimes committed by the defendant, unless that information is used for some purpose other than to “prove the character of a person.”

The Supreme Court unanimously found the discussion of the incident likely prejudiced the jury in Kincaid’s trial.

“(Due) to similarities between the charged incident and Park City, there is a high likelihood that the jury drew the improper inference that if Mr. Kincaid did something before, he probably did it again,” the ruling said.

Prosecutors also improperly referred to the Park City incident in closing arguments, justices said.

“Consequently, we conclude there is a reasonable probability that the result would have been more favorable to Mr. Kincaid if the Park City testimony had not been admitted,” the ruling said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal In Disney Heir Lawsuit

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A lawsuit filed by the grandson of Walt Disney over the disposition of land in Teton County should be decided in California, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Wednesday turned down Brad Lund in his attempt to have a lawsuit over the sale of a plot of land known as Eagle South Fork Ranch near Wilson heard in Teton County.

Justices unanimously upheld a state district court’s ruling that justice would be better served if Lund’s challenge was heard in a California court rather than one in Wyoming.

“The district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the California court was an available and adequate alternate forum,” said the ruling written by Chief Justice Kate Fox.

The ruling is the latest in a long series of legal battles between Lund, his sister Michelle Lund and the trustees for both of the trusts maintained for the two.

Brad and Michelle Lund are the children of Sharon Disney-Lund, the daughter of Walt Disney.

Their father bought the 110-acre ranch and after their mother’s death, the ranch was placed in residuary trusts for the two children, with each trust owning 50% of the land.

According to the ruling, since 2009, Brad Lund and the trustees have been involved in a lawsuit in California probate court over numerous elements of the trust, including ways assets should be divided between the trusts of Brad and Michelle.

In 2019, trustees agreed to let Bradford buy his sister’s interest in the Eagle South Fork Ranch for $9.7 million rather than sell the land to an outside party.

In September 2020, the trustees announced they had received an offer of $35 million for the property, which they intended to accept. Michelle withdrew her consent to her brother’s purchase of the land.

Brad then filed a complaint against his sister and the trustees in state district court in Teton County, saying they breached the terms of an agreement for the purchase of the land.

The trustees and Michelle asked that the lawsuit be dismissed because all of the other legal actions surrounding the trusts were taking part in California.

The state district court granted the request and Brad challenged it to the Wyoming Supreme Court, saying the action involved a Wyoming property, so it made sense to hear the challenge in Wyoming.

But the Supreme Court which agreed it made more sense to pursue legal action in California because it was actually part of a larger probate case in that state.

“The California court has an extensive history with these parties and their trust disputes, and the district court reasonably concluded that the more efficient course was to have that court preside over this dispute as well,” the ruling said.

In addition, all of the parties, witnesses and evidence in the case are located outside of Wyoming, the ruling said.

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Divorce Decree Dispute That Reached Wyo Supreme Court Settled For Husband

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A dispute over a divorce decree that reached Wyoming’s Supreme Court has been settled in the husband’s favor.

Justices rejected the appeal of Erin Innes over a lower court’s decision on how the property she held with her ex-husband should be divided.

“The district court awarded property in a division it considered fair and equitable after applying the factors set forth in (state law),” said the opinion, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden. “It did not abuse its discretion.”

According to the ruling, Erin Innes and Kyle Innes, both veterinarians in Gillette, were married in January 2011 and Kyle Innes filed for divorce in July 2018.

In a divorce decree issued by a district court in 2020, the court divided property jointly held by the two, including pickup trucks, horses, a home and various other assets. Erin Innes was also awarded $200,000 to ensure “a just and equitable division of the marital assets.” 

However, Erin Innes argued she was entitled to $334,789 as her half of the equity in property the couple owned together.

The lower court properly took into consideration the fact that when the couple bought property, Kyle Innes provided the down payment from money he had before the marriage or money he had inherited, justices ruled.

The Supreme Court also held that the district court properly followed state law in determining how to divide the property.

“While the court did not consider the retirement accounts or credit card debt in its equitable division, it did consider that wife’s student loans were paid during the marriage; the endurance horses; the personal bank accounts; the vehicles and horse trailers; and the expense husband paid for marriage counseling,” the ruling said. “Wife’s argument does not account for those.”

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Wyo Supreme Court Rejects Appeal By Man Who Said He Had A Bad Lawyer

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A Green River man who said he was given bad advice by an attorney cannot appeal his sentence on an escape charge after giving up his right to an appeal earlier, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The court upheld the sentence of Matthew Harl Majhanovich on allegations he drove away from a police officer during a traffic stop, saying Majhanovich had the opportunity to appeal his sentence once, but then discarded it.

“Mr. Majhanovich’s claim that his sentence is illegal because the facts do not support his guilty plea is barred …” said the opinion, written by Justice Keith Kautz.

According to the ruling, Majhanovich was pulled over while driving in Rock Springs in December 2016 because an active arrest warrant was in effect.

Majhanovich asked the police officer if he could call his father to pick up the dog that was in his pickup truck. The officer allowed him to make the call from inside of his pickup truck and, according to the opinion, while Majhanovich was on the phone, he put the truck in gear, drove over a curb to an adjacent street and sped away from the officer.

Majhanovich was arrested nine days later and he was charged, with, among other things, escape from official detention.

Majhanovich pleaded guilty to the charge as part of a plea bargain and was sentence to two to three years in prison.

Majhanovich filed an appeal of his sentence with the Wyoming Supreme Court, but then withdrew it, saying he waived his right to an appeal.

In March 2020, Majhanovich raised a claim that the sentence was illegal and appealed it. A district court rejected the claim, noting Majhanovich had already waived his right to appeal the issue.

Majhanovich said there was insufficient evidence to support a charge of escape and that he believed he should have followed through with his appeal. However, he said his attorney advised him to drop the appeal.

“In other words, he claims he did not adequately understand his potential claim that his sentence was illegal, even though he had an attorney,” the opinion said. 

Justices unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision.

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Supreme Court Rules School Not Liable For Rock Springs Student Who Fell On Ice & Suffered Brain Injury

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A student who suffered a brain injury after slipping on ice at a Rock Springs elementary school failed to prove negligence on the part of Sweetwater County School District No. 1 caused the accident, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision dismissing the lawsuit filed on behalf of Gabriel Miller stemming from the January 2017 accident, finding he failed to prove that pipes placed alongside Lincoln Elementary school to divert water from the building caused the fall that injured him.

“The record was simply devoid of evidence that the placement of the pipes contributed to Gabriel’s fall and injuries,” said the ruling, written by Justice Michael Davis.

According to the ruling, on Jan. 9, 2017, the school’s principal noticed water draining from the school had created a puddle inside the building and a patch of ice on a sidewalk outside the building.

PVC pipes were installed outside the building and across a walkway to divert water from the building.

On Jan. 10, 2017, Miller, then 7, was returning from lunch recess when he fell. He told his mother he struck his head on one of the PVC pipes.

Although the boy appeared to be fine immediately after the incident, it was later determined he had suffered a “brain bleed.” He was taken to Salt Lake City for observation, but surgery was not required.

Gabriel’s attorney filed a lawsuit against the school district about two years later, alleging the exposed PVC pipes created a dangerous condition on the school grounds.

A state district court sided with the school district in its arguments there was no evidence the boy fell while trying to get around the pipes, noting he said he slipped on ice

The Supreme Court found while there was testimony to indicate Gabriel did hit his head on a pipe, there was no evidence the placement of the pipes caused his fall.

“The district court therefore properly granted the school district summary judgment on the question of causation,” the opinion said.

Wyo Supreme Court Rules Against Six Pack-Drinking Driver Who Disputed Breathalyzer Test

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Carbon County was not required to pay for a blood test for a man who challenged the accuracy of a breathalyzer test when he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court upheld the decision of an administrative hearing officer to suspend the driver’s license of Steven Flauding Jr., rejecting his arguments that the hearing officer should not have considered the results of a breathalyzer test that showed he had a blood-alcohol content of .08%.

Flauding alleged law enforcement officers who arrested him on a charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol in July 2020 interfered with his right to obtain an independent blood-alcohol chemical test because they would not provide payment for the test.

But justices ruled the administrative officer made the correct decision.

“Substantial evidence supported the (Office of Administrative Hearings’) determination that Mr. Flauding’s inability to obtain an independent blood alcohol test was not caused by law enforcement, but was a result of Mr. Flauding’s inability to pay,” said the opinion, written by Justice Michael Davis. “Since the arresting officer did not interfere with Mr. Flauding’s right to obtain an independent chemical test, his statutory and due process rights were not violated.”

According to the ruling, Flauding was arrested by a Rawlins police officer after Flauding’s car was seen in sagebrush off of the road.

When he was arrested, Flauding admitted to drinking six beers. He did not have his wallet.

Flauding was taken to the Carbon County Jail, where a breathalyzer test showed he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.8%.

Flauding questioned the accuracy of the test and was told he could have chemical test conducted involving a blood draw, but that he would have to pay the $150 fee.

Flauding argued that Carbon County was required to pay the fee so the arresting officer declined to take him to a facility for the blood test.

After his arrest, the Wyoming Department of Transportation told Flauding his driver’s license would be suspended for 90 days and that he would be disqualified from holding a commercial driver license for one year.

After Flauding requested a contested case hearing, his attorney argued that Flauding’s right to seek an independent blood test to determine his blood-alcohol content was violated because the arresting officer would not take him to get the test. As a result, the attorney said, the results of the breathalyzer test should be discarded.

“The hearing examiner found that the officer did not interfere with Mr. Flauding’s attempt to obtain an independent test, but that the test was instead unavailable to him because he did not have the means to pay for it,” the opinion said.

A state district court upheld the hearing examiner’s finding and justices said the decision was correct.

“We have reviewed the record and body camera footage, and we have found nothing to suggest that law enforcement interfered with Mr. Flauding’s right to obtain an independent chemical test,” the opinion said.

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Supreme Court Rules Against Gillette Teen Who Planned To Kill Classmates; Correctly Tried As Adult, Justices Say

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A teenager who planned to kill nine people at a Gillette middle school was correctly tried as an adult, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The court upheld the decision of a lower court not to transfer the case of Dale Warner to a juvenile court, ruling sufficient evidence existed to justify trying Warner as an adult even though he was 14 at the time of the incident.

“The district court thoughtfully analyzed and weighed all applicable factors under (Wyoming law),” said the ruling, written by Justice Kari Gray. “The court did not abuse its discretion in denying Mr. Warner’s motion to transfer (the case to juvenile court).”

The ruling stems from Warner’s arrest in November 2018 after he took guns and ammunition to Sage Valley Junior High School as part of a plan to shoot nine individuals.

According to the ruling, Warner had devised the plan as a way to “honor his biological father,” who had died a few days earlier. The ruling said Warner, who had spent most of his life in foster homes, had maintained “sporadic” contact with his biological father.

“As the plan evolved, it included: obtaining guns and ammunition; hiding his actions from his brother; protecting a friend from being killed or injured by gun shots; and praying that his adoptive family did not get sued as a result of his actions,” the ruling said.

After going to school, Warner spoke with several classmates, telling some he planned to shoot six classmates, a teacher, a principal, an assistant principal “and anyone else he could,” the ruling said.

One classmate told the school’s principal, who talked Warner into surrendering his weapons.

Warner was arrested and charged as an adult with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder. 

He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of a deadly weapon with unlawful intent and no contest to a charge of aggravated assault and battery and was sentenced to 

12 to 20 years in prison.

Warner had asked that his case be transferred to juvenile court, but a state district court denied the request, finding that the seriousness of the offense and the fact he planned to commit a crime in “an aggressive, violent, premeditated or willful manner” justified keeping the case in adult court.

The court also examined other factors, such as whether Warner had the “sophistication and maturity to form a premeditated plan and understand the consequences of his actions” in making its decision.

Warner argued the district court put too much emphasis on one factor, the seriousness of the offense.

But justices agreed the district court thoroughly reviewed all the factors that must be considered when deciding on a request to move a case to juvenile court.

“In balance, the district court concluded that the factors weighed against transfer,” the ruling said. “While the district court afforded weight to the seriousness of Mr. Warner’s alleged offenses, it did not place undue weight on (the seriousness of the offense).”

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Wyo Supreme Court Rules Man Who Chased Other Man With Knife Wasn’t Defending Himself

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A jury that convicted a man of chasing another man with a knife correctly discarded his arguments of self-defense, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices unanimously rejected the appeal of Jorge Mendoza of his conviction on a charge of aggravated assault and battery and the resulting 7- to 10-year charge.

Mendoza argued his conviction and sentence should be overturned because the prosecutor in his case made improper comments about his self-defense claim, but justices disagreed.

“Give his self-defense argument was weak, at best, and the record lacks any evidence to support self-defense, we are confident there is no reasonable probability the jury would have decided differently on the issue of self-defense had the prosecutor not made the challenged statements at trial,” said the court’s opinion, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden.

According to the opinion, Mendoza, carrying a knife, chased another man into a Rawlins restaurant in September 2019. The opinion said Mendoza stood outside of the restaurant “running his thumb across his throat with a knife in his hand, ‘imitating a person’s throat being cut.’”

The opinion said Mendoza and the other man, Angel Roldan, had been at a mutual friend’s house earlier in the evening and Roldan was “play fighting” with another man when Mendoza kicked him in the face. The opinion said Roldan “might have punched” Mendoza, who then pulled out a knife and chased the second man out of the house, into the street and into the restaurant.

Mendoza claimed he acted in self-defense, but said that claim was improperly minimized by the prosecutor, who said at one point during the trial “you can’t bring a gun to a knife fight” and at another point “you also can’t bring a gun to a fistfight.”

“Mr. Mendoza argues that this series of statements inaccurately represented to the jury that a defendant could never claim self-defense if he was armed with a drawn deadly weapon and his opponent was not,” the opinion said.

But justices said the prosecutor properly explained that a person making a self-defense claim cannot have used more force than what was reasonably necessary to prevent himself from being harmed.

In addition, the opinion said, Mendoza’s claim of self-defense was not supported by the evidence.

“Mr. Mendoza did not refute this evidence or, in response to the state’s evidence, demonstrate that his actions were in any way reasonably necessary to defend his person, property, or abode, to prevent serious bodily injury to another,” the opinion said.

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