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Wyoming Supreme Court

Wyo Supreme Court: Shared Information Between Cops Enough To Justify Drug Stops

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Police officers can stop a vehicle as part of an investigation into drug trafficking based on information they obtain from other officers, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The court upheld the conviction of Thow C. Guandong, who pleaded guilty to a felony charge of marijuana possession after the car he was driving was found to be carrying 47 pounds of marijuana.

Justices rejected Guandong’s argument that the Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper who stopped him in Albany County in 2020 had no cause to do so.

Justices agreed that based on information received from other troopers, Trooper Aaron Kirlin acted correctly in stopping Guandong’s car in Albany for the purpose of investigating possible drug trafficking.

“… Trooper Kirlin concluded that the driver … was transporting drugs and, based on the totality of the circumstances, we will defer to his ‘ability to distinguish between innocent and suspicious actions,’” said the ruling, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden.

According to the ruling, Kirlin in February 2020 received an advisory from a trooper in Sweetwater County telling troopers to “be on the lookout” for a white Toyota Corolla.

Upon checking, Kirlin learned that troopers in Sweetwater County had stopped another vehicle believed to be traveling with the Corolla in an arrangement referred to as a “decoy vehicle” and a “load vehicle.”

“The decoy vehicle is intended to attract law enforcement’s attention so the load vehicle, which contains drugs, will not be stopped,” the ruling said.

The stop did not result in any arrests, but officers forwarded information collected during the stop to other officers.

Later, Kirlin saw the Corolla in Albany County on Interstate 80 and stopped it because he noticed several air fresheners and an identification badge hanging from the rearview mirror that he believed could obstruct the driver’s vision. 

Kirlin testified he also conducted the stop because he believed the Corolla might be carrying drugs, based on the information he had obtained from the other troopers.

Guandong was arrested after a search of his car yielded about 47 pounds of marijuana and marijuana products.

Guandong argued that the marijuana seized should not be used as evidence against him because it was seized as the result of an improper traffic stop that violated his constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

“More specifically, he contended the initial stop could not be justified based on the items hanging from his rearview mirror because those items did not materially obstruct his view,” the ruling said.

But the district court said Kirlin’s stop was justified based on the information he had that indicated Guandong’s vehicle could be involved in drug trafficking.

Justices agreed with the lower court, finding that the information Kirlin had obtained was sufficient to create “reasonable suspicion” about the vehicle that would justify a traffic stop.

“Trooper Kirlin had reasonable suspicion to stop the driver of the Corolla for drug trafficking,” the ruling said. “The initial stop was therefore legally justified … and the district court did not err in denying Mr. Guandong’s motion to suppress.”

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Wyo Man Who Had Sex With 15-Year-Old Cousin In Walmart Bathroom After Meeting At Funeral Loses Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man convicted of having sex with his minor cousin in a Walmart bathroom has lost his bid to have his conviction overturned.

The Wyoming Supreme Court rejected the arguments of David Edward Ingersoll that a police officer should not have been allowed to offer testimony on the “grooming” process often used by perpetrators of sex crimes against children.

According to the ruling, written by state District Judge Tori Kricken, Ingersoll met his cousin, identified as “SS,” at a family funeral in 2019 when he was 48 and she was 15.

The two communicated regularly via social media, the opinion said, and Ingersoll told the girl he loved her, would marry her and “have sex .. every night.”

The girl posted a picture on social media showing her with Ingersoll and referring to him as her best friend.

According to the ruling, around July 4, 2019, SS was at a Sheridan Walmart with her parents and older sister, identified as “VL,” when she she separated from her family. Ingersoll followed her and when she passed by the store’s family bathroom, he pulled her into it and had sex with her.

The girl told VL she had sex with Ingersoll and VL told their mother, but their mother did not believe VL.

Three days later, VL told her counselor about SS and Ingersoll, but SS denied the report. The counselor forwarded the information to the Department of Family Services, which in turn reported it to the Sheridan Police Department. However, when SS again denied the report, the Sheridan police investigation was halted.

In October 2019, SS gave her teacher a letter detailing her encounter with Ingersoll. The teacher told her parents and school staff and the staff reported it to Sheridan police, who reopened the case.

After the investigation, Ingersoll was convicted by a jury of second-degree sexual abuse of a minor and was sentenced to 16 to 20 years in prison.

Ingersoll said the investigating officer’s testimony about “grooming” constituted an improper opinion of Ingersoll’s guilt and should not have been allowed in his trial.

But justices rejected the argument.

“(The officer’s) testimony did not improperly opine as to Mr. Ingersoll’s guilt,” the opinion said. “He informed the jury that child sexual offenders often groom their victims and defined the provided examples of grooming.”

While the officer’s examples included several of what he called “signs” or “indications” that Ingersoll was grooming SS, he never said Ingersoll was grooming the girl or that he sexually abused her, the opinion said.

Justices also disagreed with Ingersoll some witnesses improperly vouched for the credibility o other witnesses in his case.

In one case, SS said that after she wrote the letter detailing the incident, her mother came to believe her sister was telling the truth about SS and Ingersoll.

In another, the counselor who initially reported the incident to the DFS testified she did not know until much later what was alleged to have occurred.

In both cases, Ingersoll claimed the testimony amounted to the witnesses vouching for the credibility of each other in violation of court rules.

But justices found that none of the testimony offered vouched for the accuracy of what other witnesses said.

“Because the state’s witnesses did not vouch for the credibility of other witnesses or offer opinions as to his guilt, Mr. Ingersoll failed to establish the district court committed plain error by allowing the subject testimony,” the court said.

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Drunk Driving Conviction Overturned Because Trooper Illegally Entered Sundance Woman’s Home

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The drunk driving conviction of a Sundance woman must be overturned because a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper improperly entered the woman’s home without permission, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court, in a unanimous ruling Thursday, overturned the conviction of Nancy May Hawken and ordered the case back to state district court for further proceedings to determine whether the trooper’s presence in Hawken’s home tainted the evidence against her.

“Our law is well established that an officer may not enter a home without a warrant or consent,” said the opinion, written by Chief Justice Kate Fox.

According to the ruling, Trooper Josh Undeberg on Dec. 15, 2020, received a report a vehicle had crashed in a ditch near Sundance and the driver appeared intoxicated. When he reached the vehicle, the driver was not present, but he found the vehicle was owned by Hawken, who lived about three miles away.

Undeberg drove to Hawken’s home, where he encountered her husband standing outside the home. Undeberg said he wanted to talk to Hawken and her husband said he would go get her.

The husband walked toward the house and entered its mudroom, followed by Undeberg. The husband did not invite Undeberg to follow him and once Undeberg reached the mudroom, he asked Undeberg to wait there.

The opinion said Hawken’s husband told her officers were there to speak with her about the accident. It said as the two spoke, their conversation became heated and Undeberg called for Hawken’s husband to join him in the mudroom to avoid an altercation.

Hawken’s husband returned to the mudroom, followed by Hawken. Undeberg asked Hawken to come with him to his car so they could discuss the accident.

“Ms. Hawken complied and, because she had trouble maintaining her balance, Trooper Undeberg helped her walk to his car,” the opinion said. “After questioning her, Trooper Undeberg arrested her for driving under the influence.”

A breathalyzer test later showed Hawken had a blood-alcohol content of 0.26%.

During her trial, Hawken asked that the evidence collected by Undeberg be thrown out because it was collected after he unlawfully entered her home. The district court rejected the request and Hawken entered a conditional plea of guilty to one count of felony driving under the influence of intoxicants.

But the Supreme Court found that Undeberg was not expressly invited to enter the home and that Hawken’s husband did not imply the trooper should follow him into the home.

“Mr. Hawken took no affirmative action to indicate he was inviting Trooper Undeberg into the house,” the opinion said. “He simply opened the door and entered. This is not clear evidence of consent.”

However, there was insufficient evidence to prove the evidence the trooper collected should be thrown out because he was in the home illegally, the ruling said.

Justices said it was not clear that Hawken would have left her home to speak with Undeberg, leading to her arrest, if he had not been in the home.

“These are factual questions that must be resolved to determine whether Ms. Hawken has met her burden of showing that but for Trooper Undeberg’s entry, she would not have consented to his seizure and questioning,” the opinion said.

It is also unclear whether Hawken was advised of her right to remain silent or whether her level of intoxication would prevent her from knowingly consenting to Undeberg’s request to interview her about the accident.

As a result, justices returned the case to district court to determine sufficient cause exists to suppress the evidence.

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Former Casper Doctor Who Sexually Assaulted Patients Loses Wyo Supreme Court Appeal, Again

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a former Casper gynecologist’s claim of juror misconduct in a trial where he was convicted of sexually abusing patients, new court filings showed.

The court said Paul Michael Harnetty’s attorneys provided no additional evidence to support his claim of juror misconduct. This is Harnetty’s second appeal.

“He could have petitioned the district court for additional time, requested the opportunity for discovery, or any other appropriate order,” the majority of justices stated in its opinion. “[Harnetty’s investigator’s] affidavit, alone, was not sufficient.”

Harnetty was convicted in 2018 of sexually abusing two of his patients, one of whom was pregnant at the time, and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison.

One patient said at Harnetty’s trial that he digitally penetrated her in multiple exams. Another patient said Harnetty would attempt to stimulate her during pelvic exams.

He later appealed his conviction to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but his sentence was upheld. During that appeal, he argued that his position as a doctor granted him authority over patients, as the prosecution claimed.

But in 2020, he filed a petition with a Natrona County district court, claiming that his investigator discovered evidence of juror misconduct in post-appeal interviews.

Harnetty’s investigator said that during these interviews conducted with jurors in December 2019, one of the jurors discussed alleged crimes Harnetty committed that had been published in Wyoming news outlets, but not talked about during the trial.

These allegations included Harnetty “rap[ing] a child,” sexual harassment of a nurse and a supposed move to complete his medical residency due to inappropriate behavior with female colleagues.

Jurors are not supposed to consider or read media reports on a trial to protect their impartiality toward a defendant.

The court said Harnetty’s investigator only provided an affidavit claiming that the juror commented about the alleged crimes the former doctor committed in Georgia, but gave no further evidence.

The attorneys representing the state of Wyoming in the district court case argued that the information in the affidavit was hearsay. Most of the Wyoming Supreme Court justices agreed.

However, Justice Lynne Boomgaarden dissented and wrote she would have allowed the evidentiary opinion to happen.

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Natrona County Man Convicted Of Raping, Threatening Women Loses Supreme Court Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The conviction of a Natrona County man who repeatedly sexually assaulted women and then threatened their lives was upheld Wednesday by the Wyoming Supreme Court.

Samuel Joseph Barrett, who was convicted in October 2020 on six counts of first-degree sexual assault, two counts of sexual exploitation of a child and one count of blackmail, lost his challenge of his child exploitation conviction.

Barrett argued there was insufficient evidence to prove he produced child pornography involving his son and a babysitter, who he threatened with a gun.

Justices unanimously disagreed and upheld the conviction.

According to the ruling written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, Barrett was charged in connection with a string of assaults dating back to 2012.

He was convicted of sexually assaulting two women at gunpoint and ordering a third, also at gunpoint, to perform oral sex on his infant son.

The girl, who went to Barrett’s home in 2014 to babysit his son, “leaned down, tried to hide the side of her face wth her hair and repeatedly kissed the child’s stomach.”

When she looked up, the ruling said, she said she saw Barrett pointing a phone camera at her. He then sexually assaulted her.

Barrett used the video over the next six months to blackmail the girl to force her to have sex with him, the ruling said.

The girl reported the incidents to her parents and the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office after a final assault in July 2015, but the case was never submitted to the Natrona County District Attorney’s office for prosecution.

After being found guilty of the charges, Barrett argued the jury in his case was not given enough evidence to prove he produced child pornography, an element necessary for his conviction on a charge of sexual exploitation of a child.

Barrett argued the video he filmed could not be considered pornography because it does not depict “any genitalia, erection, or arousal.”

But justices agreed that jurors, who saw the video, could conclude it qualified as child pornography.

“From this evidence, the jury could reasonably conclude the video met the definition of child pornography in that it was a visual depiction involving the use of a child engaged in simulated oral-genital intercourse,” the ruling said. “The video .. explicitly portrayed the act and a reasonable viewer would believe (the girl) actually engaged in such conduct.”

Barrett also challenged the trial court’s admission as evidence records from his 2009 conviction to a charge of second-degree sexual abuse in an incident involving one of the women he was convicted of assaulting again in 2019.

In her examination by a nurse after the assault in 2019, the woman said the assault which occurred in 2009, when she was 15, was not forced and that Barrett offered her drugs and money to sleep with him.

The ruling said that after running into each other several times in Mills in 2019, the victim went to Barrett’s home to get a check he had promised her “as amends” for what had happened 10 years earlier.

There, the ruling said, Barrett pointed a gun at the woman’s head and said “You ruined my life and now I’m going to ruin yours.” He forced her to perform oral sex on him before she could escape.

The trial court agreed to allow the records of Barrett’s 2009 conviction as evidence, arguing it was relevant as to Barrett’s motive in the assault in 2019.

“These facts, along with evidence that Mr. Barrett had to register as a sex offender as a result of his conviction, helped explain why Mr. Barrett may have had motive to sexually assault (the woman) in 2019, particularly where he told her ‘You ruined my life and now I’m going to ruin yours,’” the ruling said.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Man’s Former Lawyer On Drug Charges Can Be Judge On Even More Drug Charges

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man whose trial on drug charges was overseen by a judge who had earlier defended him against drug charges was not entitled to a new judge in his case, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court unanimously upheld the conviction of Brian Neal Gilbert on various methamphetamine-related charges, along with his sentence of four to eight years in prison.

The court, in the opinion written by Justice Keith Kautz, rejected the argument that since the district court judge in Gilbert’s trial, Judge Kerri Johnson, had represented him in two previous drug cases, she would be biased in his case.

“(Gilbert) failed to present convincing evidence that Judge Johnson’s previous representation of him caused her to harbor such a personal bias or prejudice against him that she was unable to impartially base her decisions on the law and evidence,” the ruling said.

The ruling detailed a series of alleged methamphetamine transactions involving Gilbert between November 2019 and March 2020. He was arrested and charged with four counts, including conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine and possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine.

A jury found him guilty of all four counts and sentenced him to four to eight years in prison.

However, Gilbert, representing himself, asked for a new judge, saying Johnson had represented him “in two drug cases just like this one where I was not in possession of the drugs and it was found in a vehicle.”

Johnson assigned the issue to district Judge Catherine Wilking, who denied Gilbert’s request, saying he had not proven Johnson was biased or prejudiced against him.

Justices agreed that Gilbert failed to present evidence of Johnson’s alleged bias.

“Mr. Gilbert provided no evidence that Judge Johnson had any personal knowledge of the current proceedings against him based on her prior representation of him,” the ruling said. “Nor did he present any evidence that her prior representation of him caused her to harbor any personal bias or prejudice against him. 

“His motion to disqualify Judge Johnson relied mainly on the fact she had ruled against him on various pretrial matters, which is an insufficient basis for disqualification,” the ruling continued.

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Man Improperly Charged As Adult With Sex Assault Asks Supreme Court To Dismiss Case

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man improperly charged as an adult for actions he allegedly committed as a minor is asking the Wyoming Supreme Court to determine whether the case against him should be dismissed.

Robert Charles Rosen, who the court ruled in January should not have been charged as an adult on allegations he improperly touched a woman, is arguing there is no way for the harm done to him by the improper charging to be reversed with new court proceedings.

“Mr. Rosen has suffered irreparable harm due to the state’s violation of (charging laws),” said a petition he filed with the court on Wednesday. “His name is forever associated with the allegations in this case, which any member of of the public can easily see simply by looking his name up on the internet.”

In January, the court ruled that Rosen was improperly charged as an adult with third degree sexual assault and false imprisonment over an incident that occurred when he was 17. 

According to court documents, Rosen was accused of touching a female friend’s breasts and buttocks without her permission.

However, he was not charged in the incident until more than a year later, when he was 18. Because he was 18, he was charged as an adult.

Justices unanimously agreed that the decision of whether Rosen should be charged as an adult or juvenile should have been determined by the date of the alleged incident, not the date of his arrest.

The Supreme Court ordered a lower court to hold a hearing to determine whether Rosen’s case should be sent to juvenile court. Proceedings in juvenile court are blocked from public review.

But Rosen argued the improper actions of prosecutors had an irreversible impact on his life.

“For the rest of his life, Mr. Rosen will have to live with the charges against him in this case for conduct that is alleged to have occurred while he was a minor,” his petition said. “The damage cannot be undone.”

If the Supreme Court decides the proper remedy for Rosen is to dismiss the charges against him, it should make that decision before the transfer hearing is held, his petition said.

“The ends of justice require review of this issue prior to a transfer hearing and prior to a trial, as neither a transfer hearing nor a trial would provide the relief sought in this petition,” it said. “Further, neither party should have to incur the emotional and financial costs of those proceedings if the appropriate remedy is dismissal …”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Sentence of Man Who Threatened Wife With Knife

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man who rejected his attorney’s initial advice to plead “not guilty by reason of mental illness” to a criminal charge cannot later claim his attorney was not effective, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices on Tuesday unanimously rejected the appeal of Gilber Aldolfo Delgado Jr., who claimed he should have been allowed to withdraw a plea of “no contest” to charges filed in connection with allegations he threatened his wife with a knife.

The ruling stems from an incident in Evanston in November 2019 in which Delgado threatened his wife with a knife while she was driving their car. He was charged with aggravated assault and battery.

While in jail, Delgado’s attorney visited him and was concerned that he as making statements she considered delusional, including that he was going to join the Denver Broncos football team as a “walk on,” the ruling said.

The attorney recommended that Delgado plead not guilty by reason of mental illness, but he said he did not want to pursue the option.

Later, when Delgado was released from jail, he met with the attorney again, but showed no signs of the behavior that had concerned the attorney in their first meeting.

The ruling said Delgado’s father thought he was suffering from a mental condition and, while calling police to report the threat, his wife said he needed mental help.

The attorney again suggested a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, but Delgado said he did not want to enter such a plea because of the stigma attached and the chance he could be sent to the Wyoming State Hospital.

The attorney negotiated a plea agreement under which Delgado pleaded “no contest” to a reduced charge of possession with a deadly weapon with the intent to threaten another, a felony.

“No contest” is not an admission of guilt, but a statement on behalf of the defendant that prosecutors could probably probably prove the charges filed in a court proceeding.

Delgado was sentenced to two years of supervised probation.

However, after entering the plea, the ruling said, Delgado asked that he be allowed to withdraw it, in part because his employer told him that if he was convicted of a felony, he would lose his job.

Also before sentencing, Delgado was diagnosed with alcohol use disorder and bipolar disorder. He said that when he threatened his wife with a knife, he was experiencing an episode of manic behavior and he argued he should be able to withdraw his plea as a result.

The state district court rejected Delgado’s request and he filed an appeal, alleging his attorney was ineffective because she did not ask that he be the subject of a mental evaluation.

But justices agreed that after their initial meeting in jail, Delgado gave his attorney no reason to suspect he needed a mental evaluation.

“Although Mr. Delgado made delusional statements while in jail, those symptoms of incompetence did not persist,” the ruling said. “There was no evidence that, at any point between when Mr. Delgado was released from jail and when he entered his no contest plea, defense counsel had reasonable cause to believe Mr. Delgado had a mental illness or deficiency which undermined his capacity to comprehend his position, understand the proceedings against him, conduct his defense in a rational manner, or cooperate with defense counsel.”

In fact, his attorney successfully negotiated a reduction in the charge against Delgado that saw him sentenced to probation rather than prison, the ruling said. 

“Thus, defense counsel made effective use of Mr. Delgado’s mental condition, while representing him within the confines of his instructions,” it said. 

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 Forbes Brother Loses Appeal Over Way Siblings Valued His Sheridan Ranch Shares

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A member of the Forbes family has lost his challenge of the way his brother and sisters valued shares in a Sheridan County ranch he gave to his stepsons.

Wyoming Supreme Court Justices on Thursday ruled against Waldo E. “Spike” Forbes in his lawsuit against a brother, two sisters and one other person who are members of the Beckton Ranch Trust, alleging that they undervalued shares in the Beckton Ranch which he had given as a gift to his two stepsons.

Justices agreed with a state district court that because “Spike” Forbes had given away the shares in question, he had no standing to challenge the value the other members of his family put on the shares.

“When Spike gifted his shares … Spike no longer held a tangible interest in the transactions between (his stepsons) and the (ranch) trustees as it related to the shares,” said the opinion, written by state district Judge Bobbi Dean Overfield. “Further, since the shares belonged to the (stepsons), Spike had no tangible interest in any potential damages the (stepsons) may have claimed.”

State district judges are sometimes invited to sit in on the court to fill in for an absent justice.

The Beckton Ranch Trust manages about 6,000 acres of the Beckton Ranch for the benefit of descendants of William Hathaway Forbes, who inherited his father’s J.M. Forbes & Co. investment company in the 1800s. According to the court’s ruling, the trust has 1,188 outstanding shares held by 21 beneficiaries, including Spike Forbes. 

Spike Forbes worked as the ranch’s manager and was a member of the trust for 44 years, until 2007, when he stepped down after a dispute with his siblings.

In 2018, Spike gave two shares in the trust to each of his stepsons Geoffrey and Jeremy Scott. He estimated their value at $21,600 per share.

Under terms of the trust, the trustees are allowed an option to buy back, at fair value, any shares that are held by anyone who is not a descendant of William Hathaway Forbes.

Trustees set the fair value through a sealed bidding process that showed what each trustee would be willing to pay for the shares and then offered the Scotts an average of $5,987.50 per share.

Spike Forbes then sued the trustees, alleging they undervalued the shares.

But a state district court ruled that since Spike had given the shares to someone else as a gift, he had no standing to challenge the value set by the trustees.

Justices agreed, despite Spike’s argument that the way the trustees valued the shares will result in the future devaluation of the shares he still holds.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Drug Case Overturned Because Wyoming Trooper Was Speeding

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a man arrested near Cheyenne with 42 pounds of marijuana.

Justices unanimously ruled that the Wyoming Highway Patrol officer who stopped the vehicle Joshua David Levenson was riding in when he was arrested should not have been driving more than 100 mph to catch up to the vehicle.

“We find an officer’s own conduct may negate the objective justification necessary for an initial traffic stop and cause a traffic stop to be unreasonable when all the circumstances are considered” the ruling said.

According to the ruling, written by Justice John Fenn, Levenson was a passenger in a car traveling on Interstate 80 near Cheyenne in August 2018.

The ruling said Trooper Shane Carraher was parked in the median when the car Leveson was in passed by.

“While initially not having observed any traffic violation, Trooper Carraher decided to catch up to (the car),” the opinion said. “To do so, he drove in both the left and right lanes of traffic at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour, reaching approximately 111 miles per hour at one point.”

When Carraher caught up to the car Levenson was riding in, he reduced his speed to about 54 mph to tail the car. He then determined that the car was traveling about 1.2 seconds behind a semi-truck — not the 2 seconds required by law.

Carraher pulled the car over for following the truck too closely and then asked for a K-9 drug detecting dog to visit the scene. An investigation revealed about 42 pounds of marijuana in the car.

Levenson was charged with felony intent to deliver a controlled substance and felony possession of a controlled substance.

Levenson asked that the marijuana not be admitted as evidence, arguing the traffic stop was unreasonable and that the trooper’s own driving created a safety hazard. The state district court rejected the request

Levenson pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance and reserved his right to appeal the decision to allow the marijuana as evidence.

Justices said the lower court failed to take into account that Carraher was driving well over the speed limit in pursuit of the car Levenson was riding in, even though he had observed no traffic violations.

“Based on the circumstances of this case as discussed above, Trooper Carraher’s conduct violated the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify the initial traffic stop,” the ruling said. “Our … review of the ultimate determination regarding the constitutionality of the initial stop in this case leads us to conclude that the initial traffic stop was unreasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment (protection against unreasonable search and seizure).

As a result, justices reversed Levenson’s conviction.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Tells Man He Must Prove He Does Not Have Pot

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

It is not the state’s responsibility to prove that a leafy green substance a man was caught with met federal definitions of marijuana, according to Wyoming’s Supreme Court.

The court unanimously ruled that a man who argued that the prosecution must prove he had marijuana in his possession is actually the one responsible for showing he did not have it.

Justices found that Alfonso Roman was responsible for proving the green, leafy substance found in his pocket after being stopped by police was did not contain enough THC to be considered marijuana, due to a Wyoming state statute which “unambiguously places the burden to prove exemptions or exceptions to the act on the person claiming such exemption or exception…”

“There was sufficient evidence to support Mr. Roman’s conviction for possession of marijuana,” the ruling said.

According to the ruling, Roman was arrested after fleeing from police and when he was searched, officers found substances believed to be marijuana and methamphetamine in his pockets. He was later charged with possession of meth and marijuana, along with interference with a peace officer.

A jury found him guilty of all three charges. But in his appeal Roman argued that the state had the burden of proving the marijuana-like substance in his pocket actually had a THC concentration of 0.3% or more.

Roman claimed that since the state had failed to prove the substance to be marijuana, there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for marijuana possession. He claimed the substance was hemp, which under federal law must have a THC concentration of less than 0.3%.

It was noted in the court documents that Roman was initially charged with two misdemeanors for possession of marijuana and methamphetamine, but the charges were upgraded due to him having two prior convictions for possession of controlled substances.

The court documents also said that Roman filed a motion for a new trial based on newly-discovered evidence. He argued that the federal Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 required the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance he possessed had a THC concentration of more than 0.3% to qualify as marijuana.

There was no debate about the methamphetamine-like substance found in his other pocket, though.

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Supreme Court Rules Jackson Man Does Not Have Fundamental Right To Distribute Marijuana

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Casey Hardison (YouTube screenshot)
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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The Wyoming law prohibiting the distribution of marijuana is constitutional, even though it does not address tobacco or alcohol, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court unanimously upheld the conviction of Casey Hardison, rejecting his argument that because the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act does not address tobacco or alcohol sales, it is a violation of the equal protection clauses of both the Wyoming and U.S. constitutions.

“The Wyoming Controlled Substances Act is rationally related to its objectives, and its failure to include ‘distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages or tobacco’ does not deny Mr. Hardison equal protection of the law under the United States Constitution,” said the opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray.

According to the ruling, Hardison, who has announced he will run for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat, was charged with three counts of delivery of a controlled substance after selling marijuana three times to a confidential informant in Teton County in 2017 and 2018.

Hardison pleaded “no contest” to two counts of marijuana delivery and was sentenced to one year in the Teton County Jail, followed by three years of probation.

Hardison appealed his conviction, arguing that alcohol and tobacco are identical in their effects on the human body to the substances listed in the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.

However, the sellers of alcohol and tobacco are treated differently under the law from the sellers of marijuana, Hardison argued, which violates constitutional guarantees that people who take part in the same activity will be treated the same way under the law.

Justices, in tracing the history of the state’s Controlled Substances Act, noted that it never referred to alcohol or tobacco and pointed out a later law prohibited those items from ever being added to the act’s list of controlled substances.

Justices also ruled that Hardison failed to prove that sellers of marijuana and sellers of alcohol and tobacco are taking part in similar activities.

The court also rejected Hardison’s argument that prohibiting the consumption of a controlled substance infringes on a person’s right to freedom of thought.

“(Every) individual has the right to control, alter and effect one’s thoughts, emotions and sensations in a comprehensive sense,” he wrote in his appeal.

But justices noted that Hardison was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver, not simple possession or the use of marijuana.

“His argument that he has a fundamental right to distribute marijuana has been soundly rejected by every court to consider it,” the opinion said.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Parents’ Rights Must Be Considered In Grandparents’ Visitation Requests

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit must be taken into consideration when grandparents ask courts to issue visitation orders for their grandchildren, according to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The court on Thursday upheld a state district court’s ruling against Jill and Shane Ailport, the grandparents of five children who asked a court to establish visitation rules for the grandchildren.

Supreme Court justices, in a unanimous decision authored by Justice Keith Kautz, said if the Ailports’ request had been granted, it would have infringed on the rights of the children’s parents.

“Parents have a fundamental due process right to guide the upbringing of their children, including determining the level of contact with their grandparents,” the ruling said, “… (State law) must be interpreted to protect parents’ fundamental right by requiring grandparents to prove parents are unfit to make visitation decisions for their children or the parents’ visitation decisions are or will be harmful to the children.”

According to the ruling, the Ailports have two sons who have had five children of their own. In August 2019, “a rift developed between grandparents and parents.” The opinion did not specify what caused the dispute.

A few months later the Ailports filed a petition to establish visitation rights with their grandchildren, relying on a state law that allows grandparents to seek such an order if they can prove visitation would be in the best interests of the children and if the rights of the parents would not be impaired by the order.

The parents of the children agreed visitation with the Ailports was in the children’s best interests, but wanted to keep authority over when, where and under what conditions the visitations would occur.

The state district court ruled that the Ailports failed to prove they were entitled to a visitation order over the objections of the parents.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the state district court in Converse County, saying the grandparents were not able to prove why the court should interfere with the rights of parents in dictating visitation to a grandparent.

The Ailports were not able to provide evidence that the children would be harmed by the decision of their parents to retain authority over visits, the ruling said.

It added that evidence showed the parents had given the Ailports opportunities to visit their grandchildren on the parents’ terms, usually at the parents’ homes.

“Grandparents in this case did not meet their burden of establishing parents were unfit or made visitation decisions harmful to children,” the ruling said.

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Supreme Court Says No To Mother’s Attempt To Change Child’s Last Name To New Husband’s Name

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A mother seeking to change the name of her child to match that of her new husband failed to prove the change would be in the child’s best interest, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court upheld the ruling of a district court in Campbell County against the attempts of Corrie Lynn Lamb to change the name of her child, identified only as SGN, over the objections of her ex-husband, Noah Newman.

According to the ruling, Lamb and Newman had a child while married, but divorced about one year after the child’s birth. 

In March 2021, Lamb, then living in Gillette, asked a court to change her child’s name because the child was starting school in August and the mother wanted the child to share her new surname and the surname of the child’s half-sister.

Newman, a Rock Springs resident, objected and an “unreported hearing” on the request was held in May 2021. The district court ruled against the name change and Lamb appealed.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray, rejected Lamb’s arguments that the lower court abused its discretion by denying the name change.

The opinion said the state district court conducted a very thorough review of whether the child’s best interest would be served with a name change and made its decision accordingly.

“The court employed an eight-factor test … and determined that a name change would not be in SGN’s best interest,” the ruling said. “The court went on to consider whether the name change would be detrimental to the interest of any other person, specifically the father. It found father presented evidence that changing SGN’s name would be detrimental to his interest.

“In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the district court’s decision to deny the name change was not an abuse of discretion,” it added.

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Supreme Court Says Afton Teacher Who Had X-Rated Photos Of Himself On District iPad Shouldn’t Have Been Fired

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

An Afton teacher whose pictures from his personal cell phone were inadvertently transferred to a school district iPad should not have been dismissed from his teaching job, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The court unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling that the Lincoln County School District No. 2 in Afton lacked evidence to prove that the appearance of inappropriate photos on the district-owned iPad reflected on the fitness of Wyatt Earling as a teacher.

“(The) superintendent presented no evidence to otherwise connect the allegations to Mr. Earling’s fitness or ability as a teacher,” said the ruling, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden. “To the contrary, the record shows that Mr. Earling had consistently received good evaluations for his teaching performance and been recommended for rehire without conditions every year.”

According to the ruling, Earling was first hired as an elementary school teacher in 2004. Over the next 15 years, the district gave him a number of Apple products to use in teaching and he signed into all of them using an Apple ID he had created.

In the 2018-19 school year, Earling had an outdated iPad he used at home to access email. He also allowed his daughters to use it to download apps, play games and watch videos.

In May 2018, Earling bought an Apple iPhone for his personal use.

“At some point after that, unbeknownst to Mr. Earling, personal photos and images from his iPhone began syncing to the iPad,” the ruling said.

The ruling said in March of 2019, Earling’s ex-wife called the district to express concern that inappropriate pornographic material might be stored on the district-owned iPad at Earlling’s home.

Earling turned the iPad over for an investigation and technology experts from the district found about 1,000 personal images, including 50 “photos and images that (Superintendent Matt Erickson) considered graphic, pornographic, sexually explicit, obscene and inappropriate for a district device.”

According to the ruling, the photos and images include nude photos of Earling and his new girlfriend, screen shots of text messages that contained sexually suggestive content and memes that contained profanity and sexually explicit jokes.

“The photos, text messages and images were created, downloaded and shared in the context of their consensual, private relationship,” a footnote in the ruling said.

Erickson began proceedings to dismiss Earling in part on the grounds that he misused district technology and that his actions constituted immorality.

Earling requested a hearing on hid dismissal and the hearing officer recommended against his dismissal, but the school district board voted to proceed according to the superintendent’s recommendations.

A state district court reversed the school board’s decision and on appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the lower court’s ruling.

The court said the district failed to give Earling notice that something transferred without his knowledge to a district device could be used as a reason for his dismissal.

“On their face, neither (of two policies regarding district technology) … furnished Mr. Earling with a clear standard of conduct that governed the behavior for which he was dismissed,” the ruling said. “Neither informed teachers they could be disciplined if inappropriate material synced from a personal device onto a district device,”

The ruling added that for the dismissal to be upheld, the district had to be able to prove that the images found on the iPad reflected on Earling’s abilities as a teacher.

The district did prove that if the images were seen by students, it could pose a risk to them, but it failed to take into account that the iPad was at Earling’s home and never seen by students and that if the iPad had been returned to the school district earlier, its memory would have been erased.

“While there was no dispute that it would have been harmful if his students had seen the photos and images, there was also no dispute that none of his students saw them,” the ruling said. “Superintendent Erickson agreed that he did not know of any harm to students, the possible harm was hypothetical …”

As a result, Earling should not have been dismissed, the ruling said.

Justices noted in their ruling that they were hesitant to interfere with the administration of schools.

“Though it is axiomatic that we should not administer Wyoming’s school system, we must ensure the rules and laws are followed, and the law does not permit us to uphold a factual finding that is contrary to the overwhelming weight of the evidence,” the ruling said.

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Man Convicted of Shooting Wyoming Trooper 37 Years Ago Loses Third Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man convicted of attempted first-degree murder for shooting a Wyoming Highway Patrol officer in 1985 has lost his third attempt to overturn his conviction and life sentence.

Wyoming Supreme Court justices on Thursday unanimously rejected the appeal filed by Joseph Newton Best, saying his claims that his sentence is illegal were improperly filed.

Best was convicted of shooting Trooper Larry Szabo twice in an incident near Arlington and was sentenced to prison “for the remainder of his natural life.”

Best argued his sentence is illegal because the word “natural” does not appear in state laws describing sentencing for the crime of attempted first-degree murder.

But the justices ruled that Best’s challenge to his sentence could have been brought much earlier in the process that had seen him bring two previous unsuccessful appeals to the Supreme Court.

“Mr. Best could have raised his arguments concerning the validity of his conviction and sentence on direct appeal or in his motion for a new trial,” the court’s opinion said. “He did not.”

In his previous appeals, Best argued unsuccessfully in 1987 that his conviction should have been overturned because the trial court did not suppress the statements he made to police after he declined to have an attorney present during questioning. 

In 1989, justices rejected his arguments that he should have been granted a new trial because of new information that became available when Szabo filed a civil lawsuit seeking damages against, among others, the manufacturer of his holster. Best argued statements included in Szabo’s lawsuit provided new evidence showing that Best had acted in self defense. 

Justices disagreed.

“We are of the opinion that testimony … would not be evidence that would lead a reasonable man to conclude it was necessary for (Best) to shoot the officer in self-defense,” the 1989 opinion said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Suspends Former Teton County Prosecutor Becket Hinckley

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A divided Wyoming Supreme Court has called for the law license of a former Teton County deputy prosecutor to be suspended for three years after finding he violated the rules of professional conduct for attorneys.

Three members of the court voted only to suspend the license of Becket Hinckley, while two others, including Chief Justice Kate Fox, argued unsuccessfully that Hinckley should be barred from practicing law completely.

“Given the number of rule violations, their severity and pattern, Mr. Hinckley’s pervasive dishonesty, and the weighing of the aggravating and mitigating factors, I believe that the appropriate sanction is disbarment,” Fox wrote in a dissent to Wednesday’s ruling.

The ruling stems from a hearing by the Board of Professional Responsibility, the organization tasked with reviewing ethics complaints against attorneys, conducted into complaints that Hinckley violated rules of conduct while prosecuting Joshua Black on charges of aggravated assault and battery in a 2014 incident involving a woman who was severely beaten.

Black was found guilty by a jury, but his conviction was overturned when the Supreme Court ruled that Hinckley committed prosecutorial misconduct in the trial by personally vouching for the law enforcement officers involved in the case, making remarks to “inflame the passion” of jurors and making personal attacks on a defense attorney.

The BPR recommended that Hinckley lose his right to practice law because of violations of a number of rules of professional conduct in the case, including a failure to respond to motions from defense attorneys, failing to comply with court deadlines, being chronically late in responding to motions and failure to adequately investigate Facebook and cellular phone records.

While the BPR argued that Hinckley should lose his license to practice law, the majority of the court, in an opinion written by Justice Keith Kautz, said there was no evidence that Hinckley acted to obtain a benefit for himself or the State of Wyoming, his client in prosecutions.

“The appropriate sanction for Mr. Hinckley’s violations of (rules of professional conduct) is suspension because, although he acted knowingly, there was no showing he acted with a requisite specific intent,” the majority’s opinion said.

However, Fox, joined in her dissent by retired Justice Michael Davis, argued in part that because Hinckley misrepresented facts to the trial court in Black’s trial, he should be disbarred.

Fox referred specifically to Hinckley’s comments on his efforts to obtain Facebook and cell phone records for the case.

“Mr. Hinckley’s representations do not reflect the candor to a tribunal that we must expect and demand of our attorneys,” the dissent said.

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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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Woman’s Conviction For Forging Notary’s Stamp, Signature Upheld By Wyoming Supreme Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has upheld the forgery conviction of a woman who signed a notary’s name eight times on documents necessary to withdraw money from a retirement account.

The court on Monday upheld the conviction of Carrie Bezold on eight counts of forgery, rejecting her arguments that because the documents were used to transfer some of her husband’s money from one of his accounts to another, no harm was done.

But justices, in an opinion written by Justice Michael Davis, said regardless of how the forged signatures were used, the action amounted to an intent to defraud someone.

“Ms. Bezold took steps to obtain a copy of (a) notary stamp and ensured that she had a current copy of the stamp when the original stamp expired,” the ruling said. “She used the notary stamp on eight … withdrawal applications and signed (the notary’s) name to them without authority to do so. Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, we conclude that it was sufficient to support a finding of intent to defraud.”

According to the ruling, while the Bezolds were away from their home in Sinclair in 2019, Carrie Bezold asked a family friend to fax some documents from the Rawlins public library.

The friend instead took the documents to the Sinclair town hall, which also offered fax services. When the town’s clerk, a notary, looked at the documents to fax them, she noticed the documents were marked with her notary stamp and her signature was on them, even though she had not notarized them.

The documents were an application for a medical hardship withdrawal from Christopher Bezold’s savings plan. The documents required notarization of both the signatures of Christopher and Carrie Bezold.

An investigation revealed Carrie Bezold had forged such applications eight times between 2015 and 2019, signing the notary’s name and copying her notary stamp onto the documents.

In trial, Carrie Bezold did not dispute forging the notary stamp and signature, but argued because it was done to simply transfer money from one of her husband’s accounts to another, there was no evidence of an intent to defraud anyone.

Justices disagreed.

“In addition to signing (the notary’s) name to the … withdrawal applications, Ms. Bezold took other actions from which a jury could infer a fraudulent intent,” the opinion said. “An intent to defraud, meaning a willful and deliberate intent to deceive, could be inferred from evidence that Ms. Bezold asked (the family friend) to fax the … application from the public library in Rawlins rather than from the more convenient location at Sinclair town hall where (the notary) worked.”

In addition, because the money was transferred to an account held jointly by the Bezolds, Carrie Bezold did benefit from the forgery, the opinion said.

“Again, we do not hold that an intent to defraud requires evidence of an intent to benefit oneself, but such evidence is certainly relevant to the question and may be evidence from which a jury cold find an intent to defraud,” the opinion said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Sides With Mother In Guardianship Dispute 

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a woman and her parents in a guardianship dispute that saw the three take the woman’s child to South Dakota without the knowledge of the child’s co-guardians.

Justices on Tuesday ruled in favor of Diona Palu and her parents Brandon and Diane McArthur, finding that the co-guardians of the child, Kevin and Darcy Guille, did not offer sufficient evidence that Palu should be declared an unfit parent.

Justices said because there was limited information on the case as it was argued in state district court in Cheyenne, they had to assume the lower court’s decision was correct.

“To assess whether the district court’s parental fitness finding is contrary to the great weight of the evidence, we need a transcript or statement of evidence,” said the opinion, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden. “… (The) record contains neither. Consequently, we cannot consider the court’s finding in light of the evidence as a whole, and must instead presume the court’s parental fitness finding is correct.”

The ruling stems from an agreement between Palu and the Guilles in June 2020 appointing the Guilles as co-guardians for Palu’s child, identified only as DEP.

According to the ruling, the Guilles, who had been the child’s day care provider, said the guardianship was established because Palu “had been unavailable to parent the child, using drugs, experiencing mental health problems, acting irresponsibly and unemployed.”

In December 2020, the Guilles allowed Palu and her parents to take DEP Christmas shopping.

“Instead of returning the child to the Guilles after the visit, mother and the McArthurs returned to their home in South Dakota with the child,” the ruling said. “Then they sent the Guilles a letter explaining their decision. The letter made clear they had no intention to return the child.”

The Guilles asked the state district court to require the child’s return, while Palu asked that the Guilles’ co-guardianship of her child be terminated.

The Guilles said they were concerned about the child because Palu had previously neglected her parental duties. But the lower court found that Palu’s situation had changed significantly since the guardianship agreement was made, leaving her fit to be a parent.

Justices said there was insufficient evidence to prove otherwise.

“The district court implicitly found that mother established the guardianship was no longer necessary for the reason it had been established,” the ruling said. “The court also implicitly determined that the Guilles failed to prove mother was unfit, as she ‘(had) a safe and stable place to live with the child,’ was employed and was ‘engaged in counseling to help with mental health related issues.’”

As a result, the justices upheld the state district court’s decision.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Murder Conviction In Fort Laramie Stabbing

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The first-degree murder conviction of a Fort Laramie man accused of stabbing another man to death has been upheld by Wyoming’s Supreme Court.

The court rejected arguments by Jamie Stuart that he should have been found incompetent to stand trial by reason of mental illness in the May 2018 stabbing death of Wade Erschabek.

“Although Mr. Snyder has a borderline personality disorder which could affect his capacity to conduct his defense in a rational manner … the evidence established his personality disorder was not affecting those abilities,” the ruling said. “Therefore, we conclude the (lower) court did not abuse its discretion when it found Mr. Snyder competent to proceed.”

According to the ruling, Snyder, who has a history of mental health issues, reported a burglary at his home on May 23, 2018, and he told authorities the title to his truck and his Social Security card were stolen.

Snyder suspected Erschabek in the burglary.

The next day, Erschabek and a friend encountered Snyder while driving through Fort Laramie. The ruling said Erschabek got out of his vehicle, walked to Snyder’s and began speaking to the man.

According to Erschabek’s friend, Snyder then exited his pickup truck holding a large black knife and lunged at Erschabek, stabbing him in the chest.

Erschabek died before emergency medical personnel could arrive at the scene.

After his arrest, Snyder offered several different accounts of the incident, finally claiming that he had stabbed Erschabek in self-defense and that Erschabek lunged at him and impaled himself on Snyder’s knife.

Snyder’s defense attorney asked that Snyder be examined to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. After an examination at the Wyoming State Hospital, a doctor determined that although Snyder might suffer from a “borderline personality disorder,” it would not interfere with his ability to mount a defense against the murder charge.

A jury found Snyder guilty of first-degree murder in February 2020 and he was sentenced to life in prison.

Although Snyder disagreed with the finding that he was competent to stand trial, justices unanimously found the lower court ruled correctly when it found him competent.

The court noted a second doctor retained by Snyder’s attorneys to determine his competence did not say Snyder was not competent to stand trial and generally agreed with the first doctor’s report.

Justices also rejected Snyder’s argument that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the stabbing was premeditated, which must be proven to convict someone on a charge of first-degree murder.

Justices said testimony during his trial revealed that Snyder had engaged in “planning activity” leading to Erschabek’s death, including starting to carry a knife in a holster on his chest. The ruling also noted that Snyder had indicated he had a grudge against Erschabek and told acquaintances a few days before the incident that Erschabek “needed to die.”

“Finally, there was evidence supporting a finding that the manner of killing was so exacting and particular to be indicative of premeditation,” the ruling said. “The jury had before it strong evidence that Mr. Snyder had a ‘preconceived design’ to take Mr. Erschabek’s life in a ‘particular way for a reason” and from which the jury could reasonably infer from his motive and planning activity.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rules On Woman Who Tried To Rip Her Face Off In Religious Ritual

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A woman who claimed she punched herself in the face and hit her head on a wall as part of a religious ritual was properly hospitalized for the treatment of mental illness, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court rejected the arguments of a woman, identified only as ASM, that her First Amendment right to religious freedom was violated when she was involuntarily hospitalized in October 2020.

According to the ruling, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, the woman was jailed in the Albany County Detention Center on arson charges when jailers reported she had been placed in a restraint chair 16 times in two weeks because she tried to injure herself.

The opinion said ASM punched herself in the face, banged her head on the wall and scratched skin off of her face.

A hearing was held the day after the report was received and a district court, based on records and testimony from a psychiatrist, found that the woman was mentally ill and should be hospitalized at the Wyoming State Hospital.

ASM challenged the finding on the grounds that the district court violated her constitutional right to freely practice religion.

In her arguments, ASM said she was taking part in a ritual of “mortification,” in which she attempted to injure herself as a way to repent for her sins.

But justices said there was little evidence to prove that ASM told jailers she was practicing a religious ritual when she was injuring herself in jail and added she also presented limited evidence to that claim during the hearings that led to her hospitalization.

“(On) reviewing the evidence of record, we conclude that, even assuming ASM held a sincere religious belief about the … ritual of mortification, she failed to establish that she was engaged in such practice when she injured herself in the detention facility,” the opinion said. “Thus, the district court did not deny her constitutional right to free exercise of religion.”

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Cheyenne Man Challenges Veterans Tax Exemption Law In Wyoming Supreme Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A Cheyenne man is challenging a Wyoming law that gives veterans a discount on their property taxes, saying it improperly limits the benefit to people who have been state residents for at least three years.

The Wyoming Supreme Court is to hear oral arguments on Oct. 14 in the appeal filed by Sean Martin over the residency requirement.

Martin is arguing the requirement for three years of residency violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and unfairly discriminates against veterans who have been state residents for less time.

“It actively discriminates between two classes of property owners who are already acknowledged to be bona fide Wyoming residents,” Martin’s appeal said.

Wyoming law allows veterans who have lived in the state for at least three years a tax exemption on the value of their homes of $3,000.

According to Martin’s appeal, he was unable to obtain the exemption because he has not been a Wyoming resident for three years.

Martin sued Laramie County’s commissioners and assessors over the decision and a state district court granted a summary judgment in the county’s favor.

In his appeal, Martin argued that by making the tax exemption available only to people who have lived in Wyoming for three years, it treats veterans in different ways based on how long they have lived in the state, which he said is a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The state district court, in its order, said the Legislature could have believed that the residency requirement would persuade veterans to move to Wyoming for the long term.But Martin’s appeal disagreed.

“Providing a tax exemption to qualifying veterans who buy a residence in the state immediately would surely result in more veterans moving to Wyoming than a scheme that requires them to wait three years,” it said. “If the objective of the discrimination is genuinely to encourage migration, the three-year waiting period not only fails to serve that purpose, it discourages it.”

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Supreme Court: Woman Who Shot At Police In 2019 High-Speed Chase Loses Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A woman convicted of helping a man try to kill police officers while the two led police on a high-speed chase through Cheyenne has lost her appeal of her conviction.

Wyoming’s Supreme Court upheld the 2019 conviction of Chasity Larae Jacobs on charges of aiding and abetting attempted second-degree murder, rejecting her arguments that the jury in her case should have been instructed that it could have found her guilty of a lesser crime.

Jacobs was a passenger in a car driven by Dominique Childers in May 2019 when Childers led Wyoming Highway Patrol troopers and Cheyenne police officers on a high-speed chase that at one point went through the Wyoming Department of Transportation parking lot.

During the chase, shots were fired at pursuing officers by both Childers and Jacobs, according to court records.

Jacobs was charged with being an accessory to attempted first-degree murder and the jury returned a verdict of guilty to a charge of being an accessory to attempted second-degree murder.

Jacobs was sentenced to a term of 25 to 35 years in prison on the conviction.

In her appeal, Jacobs argued the jury in her case should have been told it could have found her guilty of the lesser charge of being an accessory to attempted voluntary manslaughter.

But the opinion, written by Justice Michael Davis, said that for someone to be convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter, that person must act in the “heat of passion” and without deliberation. The opinion said Jacobs did not seem to be acting in such a way.

“The pursuit lasted 12 to 15 minutes and thus was not a sudden occurrence,” the opinion said. During that period, Ms. Jacobs had the presence of mind to both fire and reload a weapon, acts that required at least some amount of deliberation.”

As a result, the Jacobs’ trial court acted properly when it denied Jacobs’ request for the jury instruction, the opinion said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Against Man Convicted Of Strangling, Stabbing Girlfriend

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man convicted of strangling his girlfriend and stabbing her with a pen was properly denied the opportunity to plead guilty to some of the charges against him, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Justices upheld the conviction and life sentence of Antoine Domone Miller in connection with a January 2020 altercation, saying his rights were not violated when the Natrona County District Court judge hearing his case refused to accept his guilty plea to two of the three charges against him.

According to the opinion, Miller was charged with one count of felony strangulation of a household member and two misdemeanor counts of domestic battery for slapping his girlfriend and stabbing in the leg with a pen.

Miller asked to plead guilty to the two domestic battery charges, but the judge in the case ruled such a plea would complicate the trial on the remaining strangulation charge and denied the request.

Prosecutors dismissed the domestic battery charge linked to Miller’s slapping of the woman, but left the charge connected with the stabbing intact, along with the strangulation charge.

A jury convicted Miller of both charges and he was sentenced to life in prison because he was also found to be a habitual criminal.

Miller argued his due process rights gave him the ability to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charges. He said even though there was no plea agreement proposed with prosecutors that might have resulted in a lower sentence, the court’s refusal to accept his plea ruined any chances for a plea agreement.

Justices disagreed.

“It strains the imagination to understand how the district court could have rejected a plea agreement that did not exist,” said the ruling, written by Justice Keith Kautz. “Mr. Miller offers no authority to support his illogical argument.”

Miller also argued the judge in his district court case abused his discretion by refusing to accept the guilty plea, but the opinion said the judge acted reasonably.

“In refusing to allow Mr. Miller to change his plea to guilty on the domestic battery counts, the district court expressed concern that a guilty plea to less than all the charges would create significant legal and logistical issues for the trial on the strangulation count,” it said.

Miller also failed to show that the trial court’s refusal to accept his guilty plea prejudiced the jury in his case against him, the opinion said.

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Wyoming Justices Call For Specific Timelines To Finish Cases

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s court system needs to adopt specific timelines for the resolution of cases, two Wyoming Supreme Court justices said.

Justices Keith Kautz and Michael Davis, in a special concurring opinion to a Supreme Court opinion in a custody case, said the failure of courts to issue timely decisions on cases destroys confidence in the judicial branch.

“Specific case completion timelines and requirements for issuing decisions within specific timeframes are needed to assure the due administration of justice,” the concurring opinion said. 

A concurrence is a companion piece to a Supreme Court opinion in which a legal issue is raised in the opinion is discussed in depth.

The opinion generating the concurrence from Kautz and Davis had to do with a custody battle.

The mother in the case asked appealed a district court ruling giving shared custody to her and the child’s father, arguing in part that a delay of more 13 months between a hearing in the case and the issuance of a final order from the court was unreasonable and should result in the overturning of the lower court’s finding.

The case had already been on file for more than two years before the hearing.

Although the court’s finding was overturned on other grounds, justices found that the delay was not sufficient on its own to merit a reversal.

While Kautz and Davis agreed with the decision of justices, they said they felt compelled to comment on such delays.

“I find it necessary, regretfully, to comment further on mother’s complaint about the district court’s delay in rendering a decision,” said the concurrence, written by Kautz.

The special opinion noted that the “timely resolution of cases is fundamental to the judicial system” and said for the most part, Wyoming’s courts do an admirable job of providing timely rulings.

“Unfortunately, the timing in this case appears to fall far short of providing appropriate service service to litigants and of the typical performance of district courts,” it said.

The Wyoming District Judges’ Conference has adopted model time standards for cases, the opinion said, calling for 90% of domestic cases to be completed with 180 days of filing for 98% to be completed within one year.

“These standards may be admirable goals, but Wyoming citizens, litigants, attorneys and judges deserve more than goals,” it said. 

It noted that some states have adopted requirements of 60 to 90 days for the settlement of such cases.

“It is incumbent on Wyoming’s judiciary to adopt specific timelines for both completion of court proceedings and issuance of decisions,” it said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Man’s Murder Conviction In Wife’s Death

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has rejected the appeal of a Wapiti man convicted of murder in killing of his wife.

The court unanimously upheld the conviction of Dennis Klingbeil on a charge of first-degree murder in connection with the August 2018 shooting death of his wife Donna.

According to the ruling, Klingbeil shot his wife once in the head on Aug. 5, 2018, and then overdosed on various pills, calling his son before he lost consciousness to tell him about the incident and asking him to “send someone out to take care of the dog.

”Klingbeil recovered after being treated at a Cody hospital and was arrested. While he originally said he could not remember anything about the incident, he later told varying versions of what he could remember, at one point saying the gun accidentally went off.

During Klingbeil’s trial, prosecutors questioned a forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Donna Klingbeil. In response to questions, he said his office felt the shooting was a homicide as opposed to an accident.

Klingbeil argued the testimony amounted to an improper opinion that should not have been offered because it swayed the jury in his case.

But justices noted that the forensic pathologist was only sharing his conclusion that the shooting was a homicide, not an opinion on Klingbeil’s guilt.

“(The pathologist’s) testimony, supported by physical evidence, was unrefuted,” the opinion said. “Based on an external and internal examination, the evidence led to one conclusion — the gun was fired straight into the head while held against the skull.”

Justices also rejected Klingbeil’s argument that the court should not have admitted as evidence records of a domestic disagreement he and his wife had eight seven years prior to the shooting.

In that dispute, deputies were called to the Klingbeil home by Donna Klingbeil, who said that she and her husband had been drinking and arguing and that her husband had a pistol.

Deputies who visited the home said the situation was resolved and there was no need for further action.

Klingbeil argued that by admitting as evidence of the 2011 phone call and visit by deputies, the court prejudiced his defense, but justices disagreed, saying there was sufficient evidence to find Klingbeil guilty even if the testimony about the incident had been withheld.

“Even absent the evidence of the 911 call from 2011 or the challenged testimony of (the pathologist), it is not reasonably probable that the jury would have returned a verdict more favorable to Mr. Klingbeil,” said the opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Conviction Of Man Who Threatened Wife With Gun

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A court made an error when it allowed certain testimony to be offered in the case of a man accused of hitting his wife with his car and threatening her with a gun, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

However, the mistake in the trial of Lloyd James Thompson was not enough to merit a reversal of his conviction on assault charges, the court said.

A jury in Casper convicted Thompson on two charges of aggravated assault and battery stemming from his arrest in a June 2019 dispute involving his wife.

According to the ruling, Thompson accused his wife of having an affair and she left their home, planning to walk to her sister’s house.

As she walked down the road, Thompson drove up quickly behind her in the couple’s vehicle, striking her left arm with its side mirror.

When his wife refused to get into the vehicle, Thompson said “he’d put a couple rounds in (her)” and then pointed a gun at her. His wife testified she began walking away when Thompson pulled the gun and then she heard it go off.

A neighbor and her daughter testified they saw a man in a vehicle follow a woman and later fire a handgun at a fence.

Thompson was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery, accused of using threatening to use a deadly weapon — the car and the handgun — on another person. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years of supervised probation.

In his appeal, Thompson said officers from the Mills Police Department and Natrona County Sheriff’s Office were improperly allowed to repeat during the trial what Thompson’s wife had told them when she spoke about the incident.

Thompson argued law enforcement officers should only have been allowed to testify about what they did during their investigation of the incident — not what other people told them.

The court, in an opinion written by Justice Keith Kautz, agreed with Thompson.

However, justices said the error was not significant enough to overturn Thompson’s conviction because other evidence, including the testimony of Thompson’s wife, the statements of witnesses to the incident and Thompson’s own comments, was sufficient to justify his conviction.

“There is no reasonable probability the verdict would have been more favorable to Mr. Thompson had the improper … evidence not been admitted,” the opinion said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Ability Of Nurses To Switch Companies

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Companies cannot use “non-compete” clauses to protect themselves against ordinary business competition, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court on Thursday overturned a district court’s ruling that three nurses who had worked for one home health care company in Evanston could not go to work for a competing company.

According to the ruling, Jennifer Brown, Nora Youngren and Carol Wolfe, all registered nurses, worked for Best Home Health and Hospice, a company that provides home health care in Uinta County. Wolfe founded Best Home in 2004 and sold it in 2009 or 2010.

In 2016, Youngren and Brown signed a “non-compete” agreement that said if they left Best Home, they would not work for a competing company within 50 miles for two years. Wolfe signed the agreement when she returned to work for the company in 2017.

All three nurses left the company between 2018 and 2020 and joined Uinta Home Health, a competitor to Best Home.

Best Home asked for and obtained a preliminary injunction to keep the nurses from working for Uinta Home Health pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed over their departure. The nurses objected to the injunction, arguing the non-compete clause was unenforceable, but it was granted by a state district court.

However, justices, in the opinion written by Justice Keith Kautz, said the state usually recognizes non-compete clauses only in special situations, as when an employer is worried an employee might share trade secrets with another company.

“Best Home did not show it would probably succeed in establishing a special business interest subject to protection by the non-compete provision of the agreement,” the opinion said. “Best Home did not identify any trade secrets, specific types of confidential information or special relationships being guarded through the non-competition provision …”

Justices also noted that the nurses were improperly prevented from offering evidence that if they were not able to work at Uinta Home Health, the public interest would be harmed because patient care would be jeopardized.

The court ordered new proceedings in the case.

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Wyo Supreme Court Allows Children’s Removal After State Repeatedly Tried Helping Family

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A state agency did what it could to keep a Rawlins family together before it recommended that its children be adopted by other parents, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court unanimously upheld a juvenile court’s ruling that the four children of parents identified only as “AW” and “KM” should not be reunited with their parents because conditions in the home continued to pose a threat to the children despite repeated state efforts to improve them.

The ruling stems from a juvenile court’s decision in June 2020 to endorse a recommendation that the children be adopted.

“(The court) found that reunification with Mother and Father was not in the children’s best interests; (the Department of Family Services) had not only made reasonable efforts, but extraordinary efforts to reunify the family; and the offered services were ‘available, accessible and appropriate,’” the ruling said.

The recommendation and ruling came after more than one year of work by the DFS to help AW and KM keep their children, the ruling said.

The DFS began its efforts in February 2019, when agents visiting the home found the three children at home at the time “were unwashed and the home dirty,” the opinion said.

“This was the first of many incidents leading to the present proceedings and these appeals,” said the ruling, written by Justice Kari Gray.

After the fourth child was born, the DFS returned to the home several times and found that conditions had not improved and that the parents were failing to maintain adequate medical care for the youngest child, who needed oxygen.

The child was sent to Denver for treatment after the parents failed to have the newborn wear its oxygen mask.

The youngest child was placed with a foster family, the ruling said.

DFS then received a report of abuse of the other three children at their home, including claims that the children were locked in their rooms for extended periods, that bruising was found on two of the children and that all three had head lice. The children were taken into protective custody.

They were returned to their parents’ custody until the father tested positive for meth use in November 2019, when they were returned to foster care.

Leading up to June 2020, the DFS made nearly daily visits to the home, cleaning it, helping eliminate the head lice, providing parenting courses for the parents, providing psychological and parenting evaluations and counseling for the children, the opinion said.

It added the DFS continued to work toward reuniting the family, but after the youngest child returned home, it was discovered the parents did not administer the oxygen the child needed.

After the juvenile court agreed with the DFS that the children should be adopted by others, the mother and father appealed the decision, saying the court abused its discretion with the ruling.

The parents argued the DFS did not provide the services they needed to be reunited with their children, but both the juvenile court and the Supreme Court disagreed.

“There was sufficient evidence for the juvenile court to find that DFS made reasonable efforts to reunify the family,” the ruling said. “The juvenile court did not abuse its discretion.”

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Wyo Supreme Court: Man Who Confessed While Running Naked In Snow Does Not Win Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The confession of a Gillette man who ran naked into the snow after being contacted by police regarding allegations he sexually abused his daughter was properly admitted as evidence in his trial, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court unanimously upheld the conviction of Nicholas Jendersen, rejecting his arguments that he didn’t know what he was doing when he waived his rights to remain silent when speaking with police in 2016.

“Mr. Jendersen knowingly and intelligently waived his rights and confessed to law enforcement that he sexually abused his daughter,” the opinion said.

The case stems from Jendersen’s conviction in 2019 on four counts of sexual abuse. According to the ruling, Jendersen on Christmas Eve 2016 admitted to his brother-in-law that he had been inappropriately touching his daughter.

The brother-in-law advised Jendersen to tell his wife. When he did, she gathered the couple’s children and took them to the brother-in-law’s home while the brother-in-law contacted the Gillette Police Department.

When police arrived at Jendersen’s home, they found Jenderson walking out of his apartment naked. He slipped past officers and was tasered twice, but was able to run out the back door and into the snow, where he was tackled.

Police said as they took him to the hospital, Jendersen made odd comments, apologized to police and sang to himself.

An officer met Jendersen at the hospital and advised him of his rights to remain silent, at which point Jendersen nodded. Jendersen told the officer he had touched his daughter inappropriately a number of times and described the abuse in detail.

A few days later, Jendersen asked to speak to the police officer again, he was again advised of his rights and he again confessed in detail to the abuse.

Jendersen asked that his confession be suppressed and two forensic psychiatrists disagreed as to whether Jendersen was having a psychotic episode while he made his confession, which would mean he did not knowingly waive his rights to remain silent.

The trial court ruled Jendersen voluntarily and knowingly surrender his right to silence and he was sent to trial, where he was found guilty on four counts of sexual abuse.

The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Kate Fox, said the trial court in Jendersen’s case accurately found that he was aware of the consequences of waiving his rights to remain silent.

“As a matter of law, the court correctly applied the facts and concluded Mr. Jendersen was aware of the nature of the right to remain silent and the consequences of his decision to abandon that right,” the opinion said.

Justices also rejected Jendersen’s argument that his defense attorneys did not effectively represent him.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Man Who Tried To Bomb Other Man Loses Appeal

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man convicted of conspiring to blow up another man lost his latest appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court.

The court on Tuesday unanimously rejected the appeal of Ryan Alexander Brown, who asked that his life sentence be overturned because of a slight difference between the life sentence announced in court by the judge in his case and the written version of the same sentence.

Brown was convicted in 2015 of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder for conspiring with two other men to kill a Cheyenne man he believed was having an affair with his wife. The plot involved a homemade pipe bomb that was to be installed in the man’s car.

When issuing the sentence in court, the judge announced that Brown would be sentenced to “a term of natural life, according to law.”

But the written version of the sentence said Brown would be sentenced to prison for “the length of his natural life” and did not mention “according to law.”

Brown alleged in November 2020 that his sentence was illegal because of the differences and asked that it be corrected. The state district court in Albany County simply changed the written record of the sentence to add the phrase “according to law.”

Brown appealed the action, arguing a sentencing hearing should have been held before the change was made.

But justices, in the opinion written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, said a sentencing hearing would only be warranted if substantial changes had been made to Brown’s sentence by the district court.

“There being no change in his sentence, Mr. Brown had no constitutional right to a sentencing hearing,” the court ruled.

Brown also argued his sentence was improper because it originally mentioned the possibility of parole, but when it was changed, the mention of parole was removed.

Under Wyoming law, anyone convicted of conspiracy to commit a crime faces the same punishment as if they were convicted of the crime itself. The only two punishments for first-degree murder are the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Justices said when Brown’s written sentence was corrected, it properly removed the erroneous reference to a possibility of parole.

The appeal was the second stemming from Brown’s conviction. In 2016, justices rejected his arguments that some evidence against him in his trial was improperly introduced.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rejects Request To Remove Agent’s Name From Censure Report

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has rejected a request to remove the name of a law enforcement agent from an order censuring a former Laramie County deputy district attorney.

Justices, in an order responding to the request from Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill, said the attorney general’s office was part of the censure of David Singleton, so it has no standing to ask for a change in the final order.

“The attorney general, as a non-party, does not have standing or party status to challenge the ‘Order of Public Censure’ at issue,” said the order signed by Chief Justice Michael Davis.

Hill asked the court earlier this month to remove from the censure order the name of Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jon Briggs.

The censure stems from Singleton’s behavior when charges were brought against Laramie County hemp growers Deborah Palm-Egle and her son Joshua Egle for raising marijuana.

According to the order, Briggs made incorrect statements during a hearing in the case that Singleton failed to correct.

Briggs’ actions were not the subject of disciplinary action, Hill said, but by including his name and the allegations against him in the censure order, the Supreme Court has in effect punished him.

“The Board of Professional Responsibility, the Wyoming State Bar and this court’s jurisdiction … was limited to disciplining a member of the Wyoming State Bar — David E. Singleton,” Hill’s motion said. “While the this process did not impose ‘formal discipline’ against Agent Briggs, the report and recommendation and subsequent press release approved by this court have accomplished the equivalent of formal discipline.”

But justices found that because the attorney general was not involved in bringing the request for Singleton’s censure to the Supreme Court, it has no authority to ask for changes in the resulting order.

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Laramie County Prosecutor Censured For Failing To Correct Flawed Testimony

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A former Laramie County prosecuting attorney who unsuccessfully tried the operators of a hemp farm on marijuana trafficking charges has been censured by the Wyoming Supreme Court for his behavior during a hearing.

David Singleton, a former assistant district attorney, was censured by the court Wednesday for failing to correct flawed testimony given by an investigator during the preliminary hearing for Josh Egle and Deborah Palm-Egle on charges including conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana and cultivation of marijuana.

A censure is a formal public reprimand issued by the Supreme Court. A censured attorney can continue to practice law.

Josh Egle and his mother Deborah Palm-Egle operate a hemp farm in Albin. In November 2019, the farm was searched by Division of Criminal Investigation agents who seized more than 700 pounds of drying hemp to have it tested for THC content.

At the time the plants were seized, Brock Dykes, a construction contractor who was hired to perform some work on the farm, showed the agents the results of a test on the hemp conducted by Botanacor, an independent laboratory that tested the hemp for levels of THC, the ingredient active ingredient in marijuana.

Marijuana is derived from hemp that has a THC content of more than 0.3%.The Botanacor test results, which were stored on Dykes’ cell phone, showed the hemp raised at the farm had a THC content of less than 0.3%.

According to a report prepared for the Supreme Court by the state Board of Professional Responsibility, the body responsible for enforcing ethics rules among Wyoming’s attorneys, a test of the hemp conducted for the DCI showed its THC content to be above 0.3% and in April 2020, Singleton filed charges against Egle, Palm-Egle, Brock Dykes and his wife Shannon.

During a preliminary hearing held in July, a DCI agent testified that the test results from Botanacor showed the hemp contained more than 0.3% THC, which was inaccurate.

The attorney for Egle and Palm-Egle contacted the agent during a break in the court proceedings and asked him to correct the testimony when proceedings resumed.

The report said a similar request was sent to Singleton.

However, when proceedings resumed in August 2020, the agent simply said he did not remember paying attention to the Botanacor report.

“Thus, rather than correct the inaccurate testimony he offered at the first hearing regarding the test results, (the agent) continued the prevarication,” the report said. “(Singleton) conditionally admits that his questions to (the agent) … rather than clarify the record … had the effect of further muddying the record, and, accordingly, constituted another breach of his obligation of candor to the (court).”

At the end of the preliminary hearing, the judge found there was no intent on the part of Egle and Palm-Egle to violate marijuana laws. Singleton dismissed the charges.

The Board of Professional Responsibility recommended Singleton be censured for failing to correct false information given in court when he knew it to be false.

The board also said because Singleton had never been the subject of disciplinary action in the past and because he cooperated with the investigation, he should only be subject to a reprimand and not a more severe punishment such as suspension or disbarment.

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Wyo Supreme Court: Saudi Arabian Resident Doesn’t Have to Argue Custody Case Against Russian Wife in Teton County

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

In a ruling stretching across three continents, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has decided it would be inconvenient for a man in Saudi Arabia to respond in Jackson to a motion in a custody case filed by the man’s ex-wife in Russia.

The court unanimously upheld a lower court’s decision that a request for a change in a custody agreement issued in Teton County in 2016 be heard in a court in Bahrain rather than Jackson.

The ruling stems from a custody agreement issued in the divorce of Ekaterina Nicholaevna Pokrovskaya and Eric Van Gendern.

According to the ruling, Pokrovskaya and Van Genderen married in 1992 and had a child in 2008. In 2016, they divorced in Teton County.

At the time of their divorce, Pokrovskaya lived in Russia and Van Genderen and their child lived in Teton County.

The divorce decree granted the father custody and the mother was granted visitation 10 days each month.

In 2018, the father and child moved to Russia, then spent the summer of 2019 in Morocco before moving to Bahrain. Pokrovskaya remained in Russia.

Pokrovskaya asked for a modification in visitation rights in 2019, saying Van Genderen had frustrated her visitation rights and alienated the child from her.

Van Genderen asked that the request be dismissed in state district court on the grounds it was no longer a convenient forum for him and then filed custody proceedings in Bahrain. The proceedings Bahrain were paused until the question of where the arguments could be heard could be settled.

A district court in Teton County dismissed Pokrovskaya’s motion and she appealed, saying the district court abused its authority with the decision.

But the Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray, found that the district court properly weighed all the evidence before it when it made its decision, including the distance and cost to travel between Bahrain and Jackson and the fact that most of the records in the case can be found in either Bahrain or Russia.

The ruling also noted the district court examined the fact Russian authorities “investigated a domestic violence allegation against mother that occurred during a visit with the child.”

“(The district court) concluded, on balance, the circumstances in this case weighed in favor of (allowing the proceedings to continue in Bahrain),” the opinion said. “The district court’s findings and conclusions are supported by the record before us.”

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Wyo Supreme Court: Self-Defense Claims Rejected In Lover’s Triangle Shooting

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man’s claims that he acted in self-defense when he shot a Cheyenne man during a quarrel stemming from a lover’s triangle were rejected Friday by Wyoming’s Supreme Court.

The court upheld the conviction of Timothy Dean Leners on charges of attempted second-degree murder in the December 2017 shooting of Christopher Trout, saying the evidence did not support his claims of self-defense.

“The evidence at trial devastated Mr. Leners’ justification of self-defense to charges of attempted second-degree murder,” said the opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray.

According to the ruling, Leners drove from Nebraska to Cheyenne on Dec. 23, 2017, intending to remove Trout from the apartment he shared with his wife Joyce Trout. Joyce Trout and Leners had been involved in an eight-month relationship which she ended about two weeks prior to the shooting to return to her husband.

When Leners showed up at the apartment, Christopher Trout “was not receptive to his arrival.” Leners and the Trouts spoke in the apartment for a while and when Christopher Trout left the apartment to run some errands, Leners started moving his belongings into the apartment.

When he returned to his apartment, Christopher Trout heard his wife and Leners arguing. He ordered Leners to leave his home and the two got what Trout described as “a little pushing match” as he opened the door and put Leners’ belongings outside.

Christopher Trout testified that Leners went to his pickup truck and when he returned, he had a handgun that he was pointing at Trout. After a struggle over the weapon, Leners was shot in the chest.

Joyce Trout’s account of the incident was similar to that of her husband, the opinion said, while Leners’ account differed somewhat. Over time, the details of his account changed, but he maintained he shot Trout because Trout had attacked him, so he acted in self-defense.

Leners, who was sentenced to 25 to 35 years in prison after his May 2019 trial, appealed his conviction, saying his attorney was ineffective because he failed to object to evidence that was introduced by prosecutors late in the trial process.

The evidence consisted of recordings of calls between Leners and Christopher Trout as Leners drove from Nebraska to Cheyenne in which Leners referred to Trout as a “troll, rapist and pig” and said he wanted to kill Trout.

Leners said the late introduction of the evidence amounted to prosecutorial misconduct and the failure of his attorney to object to the evidence was ineffective assistance of counsel.

But the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the argument, saying the evidence did not prejudice the case against Leners because there was sufficient other evidence to disprove his self-defense claim.

“We agree with the district court’s conclusion that the evidence ‘doomed’ Mr. Leners’ argument that he acted in justifiable self-defense,” the opinion said. “While the statements in (the recordings) were most certainly not helpful to Mr. Leners’ defense, the evidence which preceded this exhibit had already secured the verdict.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Against Swiss Insurance Company In Dispute With Sinclair

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A Swiss insurance company that refused to pay the Sinclair Co. for damage to its refinery in Wyoming lost its bid to avoid paying legal fees in the dispute on Monday.

Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled that state laws do not give the company Infrassure immunity from paying for legal fees if it loses its legal dispute with Sinclair.

The ruling stems from a 2013 fire and explosion at the company’s refinery in Sinclair, near Rawlins.

According to the ruling, the Sinclair Companies, the parent company for the refinery, bought insurance coverage from 18 different companies including Infrassure. All of the companies except Infrassure agreed to pay a portion of the damages resulting from the fire.

Sinclair sued Infrassure and as part of the lawsuit, asked that Infrassure be required to pay attorney fees if Sinclair won the action.

But Infrassure objected, saying state law only would require it to pay legal fees if the policy had been delivered directly to Sinclair offices in Wyoming.

The address listed on the policy itself is for Sinclair’s office in Salt Lake City.

Infrassure said since there is no evidence the policy was delivered to a Wyoming location, it does not have to pay legal fees for Sinclair.

A federal court agreed with the insurance company, but a federal appeals court said too many questions surrounded the issue and sent the case to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a final decision on language in state law.

The Supreme Court’s opinion, written by state District Judge Suzannah Robinson, who sat in with justices for the case, said the Legislature clearly did not intend for insured companies to suffer just because a company’s Wyoming office did not get a copy of a policy.

“We conclude the statute clearly and unambiguously provides that an insurance contract is issued for delivery in Wyoming if the policy issued is intended to protect an insured in Wyoming against risks in Wyoming,” it said. “To withhold the protections of (state law) from Wyoming businesses insuring risks in Wyoming simply because the address listed on the policy is in a different state is nonsensical.”

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Supreme Court: Traffic Stop Went On Too Long, Evidence Must Be Tossed

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A traffic stop that led to a man’s arrest on meth charges went on for too long to use drugs found in his car as evidence against him, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

A divided court ruled that meth seized from the car of William Mahaffy should have been suppressed as evidence because the sheriff’s deputy who stopped Mahaffy’s car acted improperly to extend the amount of time it took him to write a traffic citation.

According to the ruling, Mahaffy was riding in a car driven by his wife when he threw a burning cigarette out of the car window. A deputy pulled the car over.

The deputy testified the car’s driver appeared “very nervous,” so he called for a drug-sniffing dog to be brought the location. He then wrote the citation for throwing a burning cigarette out of the car.

The dog and its handler arrived and began inspecting the car while the deputy was completing the ticket. The deputy had Mahaffy get out of the car so he could explain the ticket. After issuing the ticket, the deputy asked Mahaffy why he was so nervous.

The ruling said the dog’s handler then indicated to the deputy that the presence of drugs had been detected and the deputy began asking Mahaffy whether he had drugs in the car.

A search revealed meth and a pipe and Mahaffy was charged with possession and two counts of child endangerment.

Federal courts have ruled that when making a traffic stop, law enforcement can only detain the people being ticketed long enough to issue the ticket unless there is a reasonable cause to extend the stop.

Mahaffy argued the deputy improperly extended the duration of the traffic stop to allow the dog’s search to be conducted in violation of his rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

The trial court in Mahaffy’s case rejected his argument, but justices, in an opinion written by Justice Kate Fox, ruled that the deputy improperly extended the duration of the stop by one and one-half minutes.

“We are concerned here with inquiries that did extend the duration of the stop because they occurred after (the deputy) had completed the citation, and the reason for the stop had been resolved,” it said. “(The deputy) unlawfully extended the duration of the traffic stop after he had completed the citation by asking unrelated questions about the nervousness.”

The case was returned to district court for further proceedings.

However, Justices Lynne Boomgaarden and Keith Kautz, in a dissenting opinion, said Mahaffy failed to raise some of the issues brought up in his Supreme Court appeal when he originally asked for the trial court to suppress the evidence found in his car.

The dissent said Mahaffy did not tell the trial court about the deputy’s questions about his nervousness and did not identify when the purpose of the traffic stop ended.

As a result, Mahaffy should not have been allowed to raise those issues in his appeal to the Supreme Court, Boomgaarden and Kautz said.

“Applying the majority opinion’s analysis, so long as a defendant asserts that law enforcement unlawfully, or unreasonably, extended the traffic stop … he need not clearly identify for the district court the unlawful or unreasonable action(s) or case(s) on which he relies,” the dissent said. “Instead, the ‘mere mention’ of law enforcement’s actions during the stop … will suffice to preserve his right to argue on appeal that his stop was unreasonably prolonged…”

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Supreme Court: Attorney General Can Investigate Debt Resolution Company Accused Of Ripping-Off Clients

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has cleared the way for an investigation by the state’s attorney general into a debt resolution company registered in Wyoming accused of taking money from its clients and taking no action on their behalf.

Justices unanimously rejected arguments by WyoLaw LLC that the attorney general has no authority to investigate claims against it filed by residents of other states.

“Nothing in the (Wyoming Consumer Protection) Act’s plain language limits the attorney general’s investigative reach to complaints originating in Wyoming, and we will not read such a restriction into the statute,” said a court opinion written by Chief Justice Michael Davis.

WyoLaw advertises itself on its website as a federally designated “debt relief agency” and private law firm. It is a registered Wyoming company.

According to the ruling, the attorney general’s office received four formal complaints and three other letters and emails from people who had contracted with WyoLaw for help in settling their debts. The company is also the subject of more than 80 complaints to the Better Business Bureau.

The complaints alleged that after people seeking help with their debt began making monthly payments to WyoLaw and stopped paying creditors on the advice of WyoLaw, the company took little action on their behalf.

“Over the span of several months, consumers’ finances worsen and creditors escalate collection efforts,” the ruling said, quoting an affidavit from an investigator for the attorney general’s office. “Months into the program, upon attempting to contact WyoLaw about these problems, consumers are unable to speak with any attorneys about their case. In many cases, clients discover the firm has performed little to no work in contacting their creditors or negotiating or settling their enrolled debts.”

In two cases, the affidavit said, two of WyoLaw’s customers were sued by their creditors and had to represent themselves with no help from WyoLaw.

The attorney general’s office launched an investigation under the Wyoming Consumer Protection Act and subpoenaed documents from WyoLaw.

But WyoLaw argued it did not have to respond to the subpoena because Wyoming’s attorney general cannot investigate complaints coming from outside of the state and asked a state district court to set aside the subpoena.

The district court refused the request and justices agreed with its decision.

“By its plain terms, the WCPA does not restrict the attorney general from investigating complaints that originate outside Wyoming or from using those complaints as probable cause to support na investigative subpoena,” the ruling said.

WyoLaw also said it does not do enough business within the state to be subject to an investigation by its attorney general, but the opinion pointed to many connections between the business and the state in upholding the attorney general’s actions.

“WyoLaw has numerous ties to Wyoming,” it said. “It is a Wyoming entity, organized … by a person who was a Wyoming lawyer at the time. Its … annual report … indicated that its principal office was located in Casper, Wyoming with a mailing address there. Its client retainer agreement lists a Casper address on the first page …”

The company also claimed it is protected from investigation under the Wyoming Consumer Protection Act because it is a law firm. 

But justices pointed to the company’s own promotional material and agreements with clients in noting the business does not seem to operate as a law firm.

“At the outset, we note that it is not clear from the record that WyoLaw is a law firm as opposed to a debt resolution entity,” the ruling said. “The record before us does not establish that WyoLaw operates as a law firm, but even if it did, the WCPA does not exempt its operations from coverage under the act.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Justices Spar Over Meaning of “Single” in Adoption Laws

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The meaning of the word “single” as used in Wyoming’s adoption laws has led to a debate among members of Wyoming’s Supreme Court.

The court on Wednesday agreed to let adoption proceedings continue by a man who wanted to adopt the child of his ex-wife after his remarriage, finding the word “single” in adoption laws means “one” rather than “unmarried.”

“If we interpret the word ‘single’ … to mean unmarried, we unquestionably narrow the list of petitioners able to adopt a child, thus begging he question: to what legislatively intended end?” the opinion said.

But a dissenting opinion written by state District Judge John Fenn, who sat in with justices to hear the case, and Justice Keith Kautz said as used in adoption law, the Legislature intended the word single to mean “unmarried.”

“In this case, KA is a husband who maintains his home with is wife, who is not the child’s mother,” the dissenting opinion said. “Therefore he is not a ‘single adult’ and he is currently ineligible to file an individual petition to adopt the child.”

At issue are efforts by a man, identified only as KA, to adopt the son of his ex-wife, identified as BLS.

According to the ruling, KA began dating BLS when the child was five months old. The ruling said KA “immediately stepped in and developed a father/son relationship with the child.”

KA and BLS married, but later divorced and married other people, but the relationship between KA and the son continued, with KA being very involved in the boy’s life.

When KA tried to adopt the boy, a state district court denied his adoption petition, citing state law that said a petition for adoption may be filed by “any single adult or jointly by a husband and wife who maintain their home together, or by either the husband or wife if the other spouse is a parent of the child.”

The district court noted that KA was married, not single, so he could not file the petition as an individual.

But the majority opinion, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, pointed out that in many state laws, the Legislature specifically used the word “unmarried” rather than “single” and would have used the word in adoption laws if lawmakers had wanted to limit adoption petitions. It also noted that elsewhere in adoption laws, a petition could be filed by “any adult person.”

The main goal of adoption laws is to provide for the best interest and welfare of the child, the opinion said.

“In putting the child’s best interest and welfare at the forefront, nowhere did the Legislature prescribe what family structure is in a child’s best interest,” it said.

Justices ordered the district court to proceed with the adoption process.

But Fenn and Kautz disagreed, saying state law clearly limits eligibility to seek adoptions to unmarried individuals or a husband and wife filing jointly.

“Although the word ‘single’ may have more than one meaning in general, when due consideration is given to the arrangement and connection of ‘single’ to other words in to the other words in the sentence, it is clear that ‘single’ in this statute refers to one’s marital status,” the dissent said.

The dissent pointed out that for almost 100 years, Wyoming adoption laws allowed “any person” or “any natural person” to file an adoption petition, language that was changed in 1977 to say “any single adult.”

“Therefore, the Legislature’s choice to amend the statute to read ‘any single adult’ was intentional and must be treated as such,” it said.

It added the Legislature could change the laws to allow adoptions under such circumstances if it wanted to do so.

“Until that time, this court must apply the statute as it is written,” it said.

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Man’s 2nd Appeal Of $50 Child Support Payment Rejected By Wyoming Supreme Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s Supreme Court has for the second time denied a man’s challenge of his $50 per month child support payment.

The court on Thursday upheld a decision by a state district court that left Michael Scott Carroll responsible for child support payment he was ordered to make in a 2012 divorce decree.

In an opinion written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, the court unanimously rejected Carroll’s argument that the Wyoming law setting out some child support levels was unconstitutional, so the court order that he pay $50 a month was void.

According to the ruling, a district court in Laramie County entered an order establishing custody and support for the children of Carroll and his ex-wife in 2012.

Because Carroll was incarcerated at the time, he had no income the court could use to determine a child support payment, so the judge set the payment at the lowest level allowed by law, $50 per month. An order was also entered to withhold the amount from Carroll’s income.

Carroll in 2018 challenged the withholding order, saying the law setting Wyoming’s minimum child support payment was contrary to federal law. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which rejected the appeal, saying Carroll should have challenged the child support order issued by the court, not the order to withhold money from his income.

In his second challenge, Carroll focused on the child support order itself, saying it was based on an unconstitutional Wyoming law that was contrary to federal child support payment laws, and as such should be void.

But the opinion said the law in question was never found unconstitutional, so Carroll’s support order should stand.

Justices also noted that Carroll could have challenged the law’s constitutionality during his divorce proceedings in 2012.

“Mr. Carroll could have challenged the statute’s constitutionality in the district court during his divorce proceedings — the cases from other jurisdictions he relies on to support his argument that the statute is unconstitutional were decided before the divorce decree was entered — and he could have appealed the divorce decree,” the ruling said. “He did neither and cannot now use (court procedure) for the relief he seeks.”

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Former Tribal Judge Disbarred By Wyoming Supreme Court After Drug Charge Plea

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A former tribal judge for the Wind River Indian Reservation has been disbarred from practicing law by the Wyoming Supreme Court after pleading guilty to drug distribution charges.

The court on Wednesday disbarred Terri Virginia Smith, following the recommendation of the state’s Board of Professional Responsibility, which serves as the hearing body for disciplinary actions involving attorneys.

Smith served as the judge for the Wind River Tribal Court from 2017 until May 2019. While serving as the judge in March 2019, she was the subject of a federal indictment that alleged she conspired to deliver Oxycodone and engaged in the distribution of cocaine, both felonies.

An investigation by a federal probation officer said there was no evidence that Smith used her position as a judge to “facilitate the commission or concealment of the offense.”

Smith stepped down as the tribal judge and stopped practicing law in May 2019 and pleaded guilty to the charges in August 2019.

She was sentenced in October 2020 to six months in prison and six months of home confinement, to be followed by three years of supervised release.

The BPR’s report on Smith’s disbarment noted that her sentence was “a significant downward departure” from federal sentencing guidelines due to her cooperation with law enforcement investigators and her willingness to undergo treatment for substance abuse.

Smith’s cooperation was “critical” to securing other drug charges and arrests, the BPR’s report said, calling her decision to work with authorities a mitigating factor in her sentencing and the BPR’s own disciplinary hearing.

“The many persons who face charges or have been convicted as a result of (Smith’s) cooperation and assistance to the government have friends and families all over the reservation,” the report said. “Families are inter-related. Loyalties run deep. The parties agree that (Smith’s) cooperation with prosecutors in the face of such a threat merits consideration as a mitigating factor in this disciplinary hearing as it did in her criminal sentencing.”

Under Wyoming law, Smith can seek reinstatement to practice law five years after her official disbarment date, which was set as May 24, 2019.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Murder Conviction Where Man Killed Brother

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man convicted of killing his brother lost his appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court on Wednesday as justices agreed statements he made to arresting officers and to investigators should not be suppressed.

The unanimous court upheld the conviction of Maxwell Schwartz, who was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated assault in the death of his brother Joseph in Douglas in October 2018.

According to the ruling written by Justice Kate Fox, Schwartz was arrested after police officers were called to a home in response to a shooting. There, they found the body of Joseph Schwartz on the floor of the home’s kitchen.

Maxwell Schwartz was also in the kitchen and police asked him if he had shot his brother and he responded that his brother had shot himself.

Schwartz was then taken to a hospital because officers were concerned about his well being. After he was released and taken to the Converse County Jail, he was advised of his rights not to speak to officers.

The ruling said Schwartz at first refused to speak to officers, but later waived his rights not to speak and discussed the incident with agents from the state Division of Criminal Investigation.

Schwartz asked the district court in his trial to keep the comments he made to arresting officers from being used as evidence in his trial, saying he had not been advised of his rights not to speak to officers at the time.

But the state district court ruled the officers in the arrest only asked questions necessary to make sure they were safe “because the scene was chaotic, the officers did not know who was in the house or where they were and Max was on the floor with a dead body.”

Such questions are allowed to ensure safety, the district court ruled.

The justices affirmed the district court’s decision, saying the questions were reasonable to assure public safety.

“The situation here developed very rapidly,” the ruling said. “In the three minutes it took (officers) to get from the station to the door of the house, the call evolved from an unspecified medical emergency, to a stabbing, to a shooting. When (officers) arrived, the scene was chaotic and (they) did not know what had happened, who was there, where the weapon was, or if there was continuing danger to the public or people in the home …”

Schwartz also asked the district court to suppress the statements he gave to DCI agents, saying he didn’t remember the interview because he was under the influence of methamphetamine, which meant his statements were not made voluntarily.

However, justices rejected the argument, saying recordings clearly showed that Schwartz was advised of his rights not to speak to officers twice.

“Intoxication, without more, does not render a statement involuntary,” the ruling said. 

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Man Sentenced to Life in Fremont County Deputy’s Murder Loses Supreme Court Appeal

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A man convicted when he was a teenager of murdering a Fremont County Sheriff’s deputy recently lost his appeal of his life sentence.

The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the sentence of John Michael Sides Jr., convicted of murder in 1995, when he was 17.In a unanimous ruling, justices also said Sides could not withdraw the guilty plea in the murder he entered 26 years ago.

According to the ruling, Sides shot and killed Deputy Steve Crerar as Crerar was returning Sides to the Wyoming Boys’ School in Worland. Sides removed one of his handcuffs, took Crerar’s gun and used it to shoot the deputy in the head.

Sides pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder and was sentenced to two life terms in prison, to be served one after the other — essentially a sentence of life without parole.

But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence a teenager to life without the possibility of parole and Sides in 2019 asked that his sentence be corrected. The court changed the sentences to run at the same time instead of one after the other.

But the district court also refused to hear Sides’ claim that he was unconstitutionally denied parole by the state Board of Parole. The court said it had no authority over the Board of Parole’s decision and the Supreme Court agreed.

“(Sides’ claim) is an argument directed at the BOP’s administration of his sentence,” said the ruling, written by Justice Kari Gray. “The district court lacked jurisdiction to consider the issue.”

Nor did justices allow Sides to withdraw his guilty pleas, finding that the time period to appeal his original conviction had passed by the time he raised the issue in 2019.

Justices also rejected Sides’ appeal of the sentence he received for stabbing a Wyoming State Penitentiary teacher about six months after beginning his sentence in Crerar’s murder. He was still 17.

In that sentence on a charge of attempted first-degree murder, Sides was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Sides argued that when the sentences in the two cases were added together, it amounted to an unconstitutional life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But justices found that because the two crimes were not related, Sides was appropriately sentenced to life in prison in each one.

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Wyoming Supreme Court: Conviction Of Man Caught With 127 Pounds Of Pot Upheld

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The conviction of a man who was arrested in 2019 with more than 120 pounds of marijuana in the car he was driving was upheld Tuesday by Wyoming’s Supreme Court.

Justices rejected the appeal of Bradley Elmore, who said evidence seized from the vehicle he driving when he was arrested should be suppressed because he should not have been stopped for straying over the center line on Interstate 80 near Laramie.

According to the ruling, Elmore was stopped in July 2019 while driving east on the interstate after Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Aaron Kirlin saw the car Elmore was driving cross the center line twice.

After Elmore was stopped, Kirlin used the drug detection dog he was traveling with to search for controlled substances in the car.

The car was searched when the dog “alerted” to the presence of a controlled substance and a subsequent search revealed nine duffel bags in the car containing about 127 pounds of marijuana.

During his trial, Elmore’s attorneys argued evidence seized from the car should not have been presented in court because he was improperly stopped for crossing the interstate’s center line. The district court rejected the argument.

Elmore entered a conditional plea of guilty to a charge of possession of a controlled substance, pending the outcome of his appeal.

In his appeal, Elmore argued the traffic stop was a violation of constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, saying crossing over the center line should not have led to a reasonable suspicion his vehicle should be stopped. He also argued that in one instance, he was preparing to pass a semi-truck when he crossed the center line.

Elmore also said state laws did not require him to maintain a “perfect vector” in his lane and the his deviations were minor and did not endanger others.

But justices pointed to past rulings in agreeing with the district court that the traffic stop was justified because crossing the center lane is a violation of state law.

“Our … review of the ultimate determination regarding the constitutionality of the initial stop in this case leads us to conclude that Trooper Kirlin’s actions did not violate (the constitution),” said the opinion, written by Chief Justice Michael Davis. “Trooper Kirlin’s testimony, along with … dash camera footage, supports the district court’s legal conclusion that reasonable suspicion supported the initial stop based on its findings of fact.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court: Sex Offender Must Continue To Register In 1994 Conviction

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man who was required to register as a sex offender because of a change in state law must continue to register even though his conviction occurred more than 25 years ago, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court upheld a lower court’s decision to require Jeffrey Earl Harrison to register as a sex offender until 2034.

According to the ruling, written by Justice Kate Fox, Harrison was convicted in 1994 of fourth-degree sexual assault, a crime which in 1997 was reclassified to third-degree sexual assault, which is defined as “sexual contact” without sex taking place.

At the time of his conviction, Harrison was not required to register as a sex offender because the victim was over 16. However, state law changed in 2007 to require registration by those convicted of third-degree sexual assault regardless of the age of the victim.

Once Harrison learned of the change in 2009, he began to register as a sex offender. In 2019, 25 years after his conviction, he asked that he be allowed to stop registering. 

The ruling said in Harrison’s case, he could ask for relief from registration after 25 years.

A state district court initially agreed to Harrison’s request, but it was opposed by the state Division of Criminal Investigation.

The DCI said the 25-year limit began after Harrison started registering in 2009, not when he was convicted in 1994.

Harrison argued the district court made a mistake by starting the time on his registration period in 2009, but the Supreme Court said state law was clear that people required to register as sex offenders must do so for at least 25 years.

Harrison also argued that his constitutional rights to equal treatment under the law were violated because by changing the rules on registration, the state imposed extra years of registration that would not be imposed on someone else convicted of the same crime after 2007.

However, justices said Harrison did not offer enough evidence to get the court to reverse itself on its ruling in the past that the registration requirement is not a punishment, but a regulatory burden.

“He has not convinced this court to overturn our holding that the (registration law) is not an ex post facto punishment …” 

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Wyo Supreme Court: Swinger Can Seek Court Action To Determine Who Fathered Child

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man who claimed to have fathered a child while involved in an “open relationship” can seek court action to determine whether he is the child’s father, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Justices overturned a lower court’s ruling that the man, identified only as BJ, lacked standing to bring paternity action in an effort to prove the child is his.

According to the ruling, the man and his wife were involved in an “open relationship” with a man identified as “CM” and his wife.

CM’s wife, identified as “Mother,” became pregnant and gave birth to a child in 2019. In May of 2019, BJ filed a petition to establish that he was the child’s father.

However, the mother asked that the petition be dismissed, saying her husband, CM, was the presumed father of her child.

The state district court in Cheyenne ruled that because the child already had a presumed father, CM, then BJ was a “stranger to the relationship” and was not entitled to seek a paternity order.

But justices said state law clearly allows “a man whose paternity of the child is to be adjudicated” the right to seek a court ruling on the issue.

“The language in (state law) is clear and unambiguous,” said the ruling, written by Justice Kari Gray. “BJ qualifies as ‘a man whose paternity of the child is to be adjudicated.’ He has standing under the plain meaning of the statute.”

The state district court was ordered to conduct new proceedings in the case.

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