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Wyoming Supreme Court

Former Tribal Judge Suspended From Law By Wyoming Supreme Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The former chief judge for the Wind River Indian Reservation Tribal Court was suspended from practicing law Wednesday by the Wyoming Supreme Court because of issues stemming from her conviction on federal drug charges.

Justices, ruling on a recommendation from the Wyoming State Bar’s Board of Professional Responsibility, said Terri Virginia Smith would be suspended from practicing law until a resolution can be reached regarding disciplinary action by the board.

Smith pleaded guilty in 2019 in federal court to charges of conspiracy to deliver oxycodone and distribution of cocaine. She and her sister were both charged based on an investigation conducted by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that began in 2018.

At the time of the investigation, Smith served as chief tribal judge on the reservation, although she later resigned.

The state Board of Professional Responsibility, which monitors the actions of attorneys around the state and disciplines then for violations of rules of professional behavior, began disciplinary proceedings against Smith in October on the grounds she had been convicted of a serious crime.

The board told the Supreme Court that it was working with Smith on a resolution of the formal charge and recommended she not be suspended from practicing law at that time.

However, in January, the board and Smith told the Supreme Court that a resolution was not approved by the Board of Professional Responsibility, according to the Supreme Court’s order.

As a result, the court decided to suspend Smith until the disciplinary proceedings can be completed.

Also suspended Wednesday was Donald Tolin of Casper, who was accused of being uncooperative with the Wyoming State Bar.

Acting again on the recommendations of the Board of Professional Responsibility, the court said Tolin would be suspended from practicing law “pending final resolution of the formal charge that has been, or will be, filed against him…”

According to the order, the board said Tolin had not provided documents and information it had requested.

The order did not specify why the board was seeking information from Tolin.

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Dispute Over Strip Of Land Decided By Wyoming Supreme Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The old saying “good fences make good neighbors” apparently does not apply in cases of window wells, sprinklers and property lines.

A dispute over window wells that stretched 16 inches over a property line made it all the way to Wyoming’s Supreme Court, where justices on Monday unanimously agreed that the owner of one home should be given ownership of about 16 inches of land from his neighbor’s property.

The ruling stems from a dispute between two neighbors in Glendo, Thomas Valdova and Judith Woodward.

According to the ruling, Valdova in 1999 purchased a home in Glendo that had been built at least 20 years before. The building had seven window wells, all extending 14 to 16 inches over the property line between Valdova’s property and that of Woodward, who moved into her neighboring home in 2005.

In 2002, Valdova surveyed his property and learned his window wells reached over the property line. The ruling said Valdova did not tell his neighbor at the time about the fact his window wells encroached on the neighbor’s land.

The ruling said the relationship between Valdova and Woodward was “neighborly” until 2018, when Valdova asked Woodward to stop using sprinklers near the property line because they sprayed water directly onto his window and walls. He asked her to water along the property line by hand.

Woodward responded with a letter demanding payment for the use of property for the window wells and then a few months later said if Valdova did not remove the window wells from her property, she would hire someone to do so “at his expense.”

Valdova filed a complaint in state district court asking to be given title to the land that contained the window wells, arguing that it had been used by the owners of his home for that purpose going back to at least 1975.

The district court ultimately granted a summary judgment in Valdova’s favor, finding he was able to prove that the neighboring property was used for his home’s window wells over a substantial period of time with none of the owners of the neighboring property complaining until 2018.

The Supreme Court agreed with Valdova’s argument, saying he was able to prove the land in dispute had been used for the window wells for some time.

“Mr. Valdova demonstrates actual possession by the existence of the window wells,” said the court’s ruling, written by Justice Kate Fox. “He submitted numerous affidavits from himself and four others to prove they existed from 1967 to the present.”

As a result, the district court properly ruled that Valdova had “adverse possession” of the land in question.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Upholds Sex Assault Conviction Despite Charging Delay

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

An eight and one-half year delay in the filing of charges against a man convicted of assaulting a woman in Laramie did not deny him his right to due process of law, Wyoming’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court unanimously upheld the first degree sexual assault conviction of Martin Alan Ridinger, finding the delay in filing charges against him in connection with the 2010 incident was the result of negligence on the part of police and prosecutors, not an intentional effort to deny him his rights to due process.

“Ordinary negligence on the part of the state is not enough to establish a due process violation, the state must act intentionally,” said the ruling written by Justice Keith Kautz.

According to the ruling, Ridinger was accused of assaulting a woman in July 2010 in Laramie, however, he was not charged with a crime until February 2019.

Ridinger argued the delay in the filing of charges violated his right to due process because after such a period of time, memories of the event would not be clear, giving prosecutors an advantage despite the fact “the evidence would not support the prosecution, let alone the conviction.”

Justices found the delay was not intentional. The ruling said the Albany County Sheriff’s Office investigated the allegations in 2010 and collected evidence including a rape kit. The investigating officer was unable to find Ridinger for an interview.

A few months after the incident, the detective in the case was appointed undersheriff and his cases were handed over to another officer.

“For some unknown reason, this case was not among them,” the ruling said, adding the rape kit was never submitted to the State Crime Lab for analysis.

In 2017, the Crime Lab received a grant to collect and process all rape kits in the state. The kit from Ridinger’s case was among those submitted by Albany County and in November 2018, the Crime Lab determined DNA found in the kit belonged to Ridinger.

However, much of the other evidence collected in the course of the original investigation could not be found and the officer who conducted the original investigation had died.

Officers re-interviewed the victim and sent the clothing she was wearing the evening of the incident to the Crime Lab for analysis. About six months later, Ridinger was charged.

Justices agreed there were troubling aspects to the delay, but none of them amounted to an effort to deny Ridinger his right to due process.

“It is troublesome that (the) rape kit was not sent to the lab in 2010 and that the investigation was not assigned to (the new investigator) in November 2010,” the opinion said. “It is also disturbing that certain evidence was either lost or not properly preserved. Nevertheless, there is no indication that these failures were intentional, as opposed to merely negligent.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Says Probation Properly Revoked In Attempted Burglary Case

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man sentenced to probation after pleading guilty a string of burglaries in Wright properly had his probation revoked he was accused of trying to rob a storage unit, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court unanimously ruled that a lower court properly revoked Barry Stroble’s probation, rejecting his arguments that prosecutors did not prove he was involved in the attempted burglary.

According to the ruling written by Justice Kate Fox, Stroble pleaded guilty in August 2016 to a string of burglaries in Wright and was sentenced to six years of probation. The sentencing court said if Stroble violated any laws, the probation could be revoked and he could be sent to prison to serve a term of four to six years.

In February 2019, a man reported seeing two individuals trying to break into a storage unit in Wright. He described the individuals he had seen and the car they were driving to Campbell County Sheriff’s deputies.

Deputies later stopped a car matching the description given by the man. Stroble was driving and a friend of his was a passenger. A search of the care revealed a rubber mallet with markings on it that matched marks left on the door of one of the storage units.

Prosecutors asked that Stroble’s probation be revoked because he committed the crime of attempted burglary.

But Stroble said he was in Gillette shortly before the attempted burglary took place and presented a receipt showing he and his friend had eaten at a fast food restaurant a little less than 30 minutes before the attempted burglary was reported.

Stroble said his alibi showed prosecutors lacked the evidence needed to prove he committed a crime, but the Supreme Court said sufficient proof existed.

“Mr. Stroble asserts the state only presented circumstantial evidence, and it was insufficient to overcome his alibi evidence,” the ruling said. “Here, the district court reasonably inferred from the evidence presented and the testimony of (the witness and sheriff’s deputies) that Mr. Stroble was one of the men who attempted to break into the storage unit.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Says Wyoming Has Jurisdiction Over International Adoptions

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming’s courts have authority to recognize adoptions approved under international treaties, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices unanimously directed a state district court to order the issuing of a Wyoming birth certificate for a Chinese child whose adoption by Wyoming parents was approved under international rules designed to protect the rights of children in international adoptions.

According to the ruling, the child, identified only as “MAJB,” was adopted by “DLB” and “DAB” from a Chinese orphanage in April 2016.

The adoption was made under terms of the “Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption” and the parents received a “Hague Adoption Certificate” from the U.S. State Department.

After arriving in the United States, the boy was examined by physicians, who determined he was born in 2005, not 2003 as was listed on the international adoptions documents.

The parents asked a district court to approve the adoption and order the production of a birth certificate showing the child’s accurate birth date.

However, the district court dismissed the request, saying state law did not give it the authority to enter an order of adoption that would change the date of birth or the authority to deal with an international adoption.

The opinion, written by Justice Kari Gray, noted the court has not dealt with a similar case in the past.

“This case is unlike any other we have considered,” the opinion said. “It does not involve the termination of parental rights, a nonconsenting parent, or the failure to comply with statutory procedures. Instead, we are asked to apply Wyoming law to an adoption completed in conformity with stringent intercountry and federal procedural protections, but one that has left a child without a birth certificate or any other record reflecting an accurate birth date.”

Justices noted that under state law, the state must issue a birth certificate in cases of international adoption to confirm a child’s U.S. citizenship and added the birth certificate must be accurate.

“An official document reflecting a correct date of birth is integral to fundamental rights and privileges of United States citizenship including … the right to vote and eligibility for military service,” the opinion said.

As a result, there is no reason for the lower court not to approve the issuing of a birth certificate with the child’s correct birth date, the opinion said, 

Justices also noted that state law does not expressly prohibit the state’s courts from having jurisdiction over international adoptions.

“The district court has … jurisdiction to approve the Hague Convention adoption and is statutorily authorized to issue a decree of adoption allowing (the child) to obtain a Wyoming birth certificate with an accurate date of birth,” the opinion said. 

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Divided Wyoming Supreme Court Rules 121 Pounds Of Marijuana Legally Seized

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A divided Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of a man who was driving a van found to contain 121 pounds of marijuana, rejecting his claims that the search of his vehicle was unconstitutional.

However, two of the five justices agreed with the arguments of Kellon Christon Pryce that he was unnecessarily detained during a traffic stop to allow time for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive at the scene to examine the vehicle he was driving.

“When an officer unlawfully extends a stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the remedy is suppression of the evidence discovered,” Justice Kate Fox wrote in a dissent that was joined by Chief Justice Michael Davis.

According to the ruling, Pryce was driving a van east on Interstate 80 near Cheyenne in July 2018 when he was pulled over by Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Joseph Dellos for changing lanes without signaling.

The trooper asked Pryce to walk back to his patrol car and then asked the vehicle’s front-seat passenger, Jonathan Sooknanan, about their travel plans.

After joining Pryce in the patrol car and writing him a warning, Dellos asked Pryce about his travel plans and noted there were inconsistencies in the answers provided by Sooknanan and Pryce.

Because of the inconsistencies and because Pryce appeared to be very nervous, Dellos said, he asked for a drug-sniffing dog to be dispatched to the scene. While waiting, he returned to speak to Sooknanan again about their plans.

On arriving, the dog alerted to the presence of a controlled substance and a search of the van revealed 121 pounds of raw marijuana and 415 ounces of THC oil.

Pryce asked the judge in his trial to suppress the marijuana and THC oil seized from the van as evidence, saying it was seized in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights to protection against unlawful search and seizure.

Pryce argued Dellos should have detained him just long enough to issue his warning and then allowed him to continue on his trip instead of asking him questions about his travel plans and delaying his departure until the drug dog could arrive.

“He contends Dellos’ travel plan inquiry — directed at both him and Mr. Sooknanan — was unreasonable because the questions did not pertain to the purpose of his stop, and thus were unreasonable in scope and duration,” the ruling said.

The lower court rejected Pryce’s request and he was convicted of two charges of possessiong controlled substances.

A majority of the justices agreed with lower court’s decision, citing past rulings in saying that questions about travel plans are an acceptable area of inquiry during traffic stops.

“Trooper Dellos’ initial travel plan questions were also reasonable in duration; they did not unreasonably prolong the stop,” the ruling said.

As a result, Pryce’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated, the ruling said.

However, Fox’s dissent noted that in federal courts in other states, unnecessary delays in ending a traffic stop have been found to be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

“The Wyoming cases the majority (of the court) relies on are not to the contrary, because they address only the scope of questioning and not their duration,” the dissent said.

Fox also noted that in the past, the Wyoming Supreme Court has held that a traffic stop can last only as long as it takes an officer to request a driver’s license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration, run a computer check and issue a citation or warning.”

“Travel plan questioning is not on the list of necessary tasks,” the dissent said.

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Evanston School Gun Rules Invalid

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Uinta County School District No. 1 will have to start from scratch if it wishes to adopt a rule allowing its teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling stems from the school district’s efforts beginning in 2018 to adopt a concealed weapons policy as allowed by a law approved by Wyoming’s Legislature in 2017.

The issue has been before two state district court judges and one found that the policy approved by the district’s board of trustees was flawed because it did not contain requirements for the qualifications of instructors who were to provide training to teachers.

The school district revamped its rule to address the issue.

However, justices unanimously agreed that once the rule was found to be invalid by the district court, the district should have started the entire process to adopt the policy again.

“Because the school district was required to restart rulemaking, the controversy over (the concealed weapons policy) ended when the district court issued its order …” said the ruling, written by Justice Kate Fox.

Opponents to the rule had filed challenges to the Supreme Court that also questioned the rule’s constitutionality, but the justices declined to rule on that issue, agreeing that once the rule was found invalid because of the lack of instructor qualifications, all other questions were rendered moot.

However, the court also said it expects to revisit the issue later.

“We recognize that appellants raise questions of constitutional magnitude, which may be of great public importance,” the ruling said. “However, we decline to address the constitutionality of a rule that is subject to revision and renewed challenges which will, in all likelihood, offer us an opportunity to consider the constitutionality of the rule in its most recent form.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Overturns Homicide Conviction of Truck Driver

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The aggravated homicide conviction of a truck driver involved in a fatal accident has been overturned by Wyoming’s Supreme Court, which ruled prosecutors failed to prove the driver acted recklessly in the accident.

Justices unanimously overturned the conviction of Tonya Arlene Hightower stemming from a March 2018 accident that claimed the life of Vidal Madera.

According to the ruling, Hightower was driving a semi-truck on Interstate 80 between Cheyenne and Laramie when the truck she was driving crossed the median, entered oncoming lanes and hit Madera’s vehicle.

According to the ruling issued Wednesday, Investigators theorized that Hightower fell asleep while driving and prosecutors accused her of acting in a reckless manner — an element needed to prove aggravated homicide — by disregarding the fact she was fatigued.

A three-day trial resulted in a guilty verdict and Hightower was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.

Before the jury rendered its verdict, Hightower asked for a judgment in her favor, arguing the evidence was insufficient to show she acted recklessly.

The ruling said investigators found that the truck had driven in the interstate’s median for about seven seconds before entering oncoming traffic lanes and there was no evidence of braking.

According to the ruling, when Hightower was questioned by officers at the time of the accident, she said she did not believe she had fallen asleep. Officers also reported that Hightower did not seem to be impaired.

Hightower said she had taken a hydrocodone and an anti-nausea pill after the accident, but a blood test showed no evidence of any controlled substances in her blood.

Justices said it appeared that prosecutors inferred that Hightower lied about when she took the drugs and then disregarded the side effects of the drugs when deciding to drive.

But the court agreed that the inferences “would illogically require the jury to disregard direct evidence that Ms. Hightower was not impaired and instead base its conclusion on conjecture and speculation.”

In addition, Hightower’s failure to brake before the accident does not support a conclusion that she acted recklessly, justices said.

As a result, the lower court erred when it refused to rule in Hightower’s favor, justices said.

“The state’s evidence … was insufficient for the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that she acted recklessly,” the ruling said. “Mrs. Hightower’s aggravated homicide by vehicle conviction cannot stand on the inferences on which the state relied.”

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Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Against Negligence Claim In Cody Traffic Accident Case

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A driver failed to prove that another driver was negligent when the two were involved in an auto accident at a Cody intersection, Wyoming’s Supreme Court has ruled.

The court rejected arguments by Nathan Wageman that a jury should have found Destin Harrell negligent in the accident.

According to the ruling, Wageman was driving his car toward what was described as a “complex” T-intersection. Drivers approaching the intersection from one direction have to drive down a steep hill, while drivers approaching from the direction of the stop sign at the intersection have an obstructed view of the road because of shrubbery and “at certain times, blinding sunlight.”

The ruling said Wageman and his wife were driving north on the road and Harrell was at the intersection’s stop sign facing east, waiting to turn left.

“Mr. Harrell proceeded from the stop sign as Mr. Wageman turned and Mr. Harrell’s car struck the driver side of Mr. Wageman’s truck,” the ruling said.

Wageman sued Harrell for damages for injuries he suffered in the accident, alleging Harrell was negligent in the accident.

The jury in the case disagreed, finding Harrell was not negligent.

Wageman said the evidence he presented was sufficient to prove Harrell’s negligence and the jury’s ruling was improper.

But the Supreme Court’s opinion, written by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, said jurors were told that Harrell’s view was obstructed by the sun and were also told that when Wageman started making his turn, his vehicle crossed over Harrell’s lane of travel.

Because jurors were presented with conflicting information, they were not bound to declare Harrell negligent, the opinion said.

“The evidence shows Mr. Harrell carefully approached the intersection, took extra time to twice look left and right, proceeded slowly when he thought it was safe, and only collided with Mr. Wageman because Mr. Wageman had cut sharply into his lane of travel,” the opinion said. “The jury could reasonably conclude from this evidence that Mr. Wageman failed to meet his burden to establish that Mr. Harrell breached his duty of ordinary care. We therefore will not disturbe the jury’s verdict.”

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Supreme Court Upholds Conviction Of Man Arrested With 74 Pounds Of Pot

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

A man whose vehicle was found to contain more than 70 pounds of marijuana was unsuccessful in his effort to overturn his conviction on charges of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.

Wyoming’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected the appeal of Dallas Clem Mitchell, disagreeing with his claims that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction and that a recording of a conversation with his jailed co-defendant should not have been introduced as evidence.

According to the opinion, written by Justice Kate Fox, Mitchell was stopped by a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper on Interstate 90 near Sheridan in August 2018 because his car was weaving on the highway.

During the stop, the trooper smelled marijuana and asked Mitchell to step out of the vehicle for a sobriety test, leaving passenger Bret Feser inside.

After Mitchell successfully completed the sobriety test, the trooper said he needed to check the vehicle for marijuana. The opinion said Feser then jumped into the driver’s seat and drove the vehicle away.

The resulting chase, which reached speeds of up to 100 mph, ended in Campbell County  when troopers used a spike strip to flatten the vehicle’s tires. Feser ran from the scene on foot and was arrested several hours later.

A search of the vehicle revealed 74 pounds of marijuana and Mitchell was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.

During the trial, prosecutors presented a recording of a call between Mitchell, who was free on bond, and Feser, who remained in jail. During the conversation, Mitchell apologized to Feser for taking a route through Wyoming and said he would help pay Feser’s bond. The two also joked about the stop and criticized prosecutors for pursuing charges “for what they felt was a small amount of relatively harmless drug compared to ‘dope,’” the ruling said.

Mitchell also mentioned his criminal history in the recording.

Mitchell questioned the relevancy of the recording and said his statements about his prior legal problems should not have been heard by the jury.

But justices ruled the recordings supported allegations that Mitchell intended to deliver the marijuana and that there was an understanding “between him and Mr. Feser to carry out the crime together,” the opinion said.

Justices also said there was sufficient evidence for the jury in Mitchell’s case to convict him on the charges.

“Mr. Mitchell was in a compact car with two dogs, another adult, and four large suitcases filled with over 74 pounds of marijuana packaged in a form consistent with delivery,” the opinion said. “The marijuana produced a strong odor. Among Mr. Mitchell’s possessions was a marijuana grinder, a stack of money bands … The evidence was sufficient to convict Mr. Mitchell of possession with intent to deliver.”

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