Traffic stops Magistrate rules livestock stop is ‘unwarranted’
Published on Jan. 11, 2020
A deputy’s June 27 stop of a Rock Springs man who was then cited for not having brand inspections was an “unreasonable” and “warrantless seizure,” according to the Dec. 10 decision by a Sublette County Circuit Court magistrate.
The order could have significant impacts on how, and if, county deputies check transported livestock for current brand inspections and whether or not livestock owners even have to allow a trailer search under state law.
Rex F. Rammell of Rock Springs was stopped by Deputy Ty Huffman, who saw his truck pulling a horse trailer on a Sublette County road.
The deputy turned on his lights and conducted a livestock check of five horses, one a foal, according to the affidavit. The stop resulted in five citations for the Sweetwater County veterinarian for failing to carry a brand inspection, later reduced to four.
Rammell, who bought a Pinedale property earlier this year for a vet clinic, said he was bringing the horses to a pasture in Sublette County.
The applicable law is Wyoming Statute 11-21-103(a), which gives any inspector, game warden or peace officer the authority to stop, inspect and search a livestock carrier, with or without a warrant, to examine the owner’s permit and the livestock inside.
With the Wyoming Livestock Board’s tacit approval to help prevent theft, Sublette County deputies have stopped people with trailers to inspect livestock, citing them if they are not carrying brand inspections. This kind of stop constitutes what is referred to as a “seizure” in this case.
However, several questions arise which might affect the order’s viability, depending on the answers.
Rammell challenged the stop in Circuit Court before Magistrate Clayton Kainer, who signed an oath of office and was appointed by Circuit Judge Curt Haws in January. Judge Haws recused himself and asked Kainer to take the case.
At Rammell’s Dec. 9 pretrial conference, Kainer said he would rule by the next morning on his Oct. 15 motion to suppress. The motion was argued in a Nov. 12 hearing and the magistrate took it under advisement.
Deputy County Attorney Stan Cannon, who took over Rammell’s case, said during the pretrial conference that the deputy’s report and citations were all that were needed to prosecute the misdemeanor case.
In court, Rammell insisted the June 27 stop was a violation of his state and U.S. constitutional rights as a warrantless search and seizure.
Cannon argued Rammell wanted to debate a larger issue of the constitutionality of “a bad law” – not if he had broken it. Rammell openly stated he had broken it because the law was unconstitutional.
Magistrate Kainer noted, “The question of whether or not the statute is constitutional or not was touched upon by the parties during oral argument. The question was not properly put before the Court and accordingly is not at issue in this matter.”
The magistrate ruled on Dec. 9 he would not restrict testimony of Rammell’s proposed witnesses on the issue, including Sheriff KC Lehr, until the trial.
“Rammell asserts in sum the seizure of his vehicle on June 27, 2019, by law enforcement was not supported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion,” his order states. “At hearing, the state conceded that based upon Deputy Huffman’s report there was no reasonable suspicion, much less probable cause, at the time Deputy Huffman conducted the traffic stop of Rammell’s vehicle, the state relies upon Wyoming Statute 11-21-103(a).”
The magistrate explained how he interpreted the prosecution’s view of the stop as a “regulatory stop.” He cited pertinent constitutional case law that a warrantless stop must relate to commercial property in a closely regulated industry and whose operation poses a clear and significant risk to public welfare.
“Deputy Huffman observed a pickup truck with a trailer containing four to five horses and turned his vehicle around to conduct a ‘livestock inspection.’ There is no evidence the deputy knew or suspected the driver, vehicle, trailer or livestock were engaged in a commercial activity,” he wrote. “Deputy Huffman merely observed a pickup pulling a trailer with horses and decided to seize the driver and vehicle.”
He cited the statute’s purpose as “in essence, a theft detection and prevention statute.”
“Based on the foregoing, the Court finds the State has failed to meet the burden imposed upon it by the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate the warrantless seizure of Rammell’s vehicle was not unreasonable,” he said. “Accordingly, any evidence obtained after Deputy Huffman ‘activated’ his lights was obtained illegally and shall not be admissible at trial.”
Sublette County Attorney Mike Crosson said this order nullifies the state’s evidence for a trial. Options to proceed could include dismissing the charges but Crosson said he is looking for a higher court’s “more favorable” interpretation or at least clarification.
This might occur with writ of review, a motion to stay the order or a consultation with the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office.
“It appears to have huge ramifications, yes,” Crosson said. “Our officers are acting on good faith on a statute enacted by the Legislature.”
He disagreed with Kainer that the law’s “constitutionality” is not part of the case as this case has always been about the constitutionality issue.
As for deputies continuing to stop and search livestock trailers, Sublette County Undersheriff Lance Gehlhausen also expressed concern.
“We are still assessing the way it was worded right now,” he said Thursday. “It is definitely a concern for us. We are obviously a huge ranching community and we want to make sure the ranchers’ livestock are safe and well taken care of.”
A Circuit Court magistrate signs an oath and is appointed by the presiding judge, in this case Judge Curt Haws.
A Wyoming magistrate must be an attorney in good standing and if part-time, can practice law privately if the private practice does not conflict with court duties, according to state law.
Circuit Court Clerk Amy Knotts said Kainer took his oath of office in January and his appointment went to the Sublette County Clerk’s Office.
However, according to the same state law, the Board of Sublette County Commissioners must approve a part-time magistrate’s appointment.
Clerk Carrie Long confirmed Thursday no requests for Kainer’s appointment as a magistrate have come through her office since January.
Kainer was elected as Sublette County Attorney for one term through 2018 and replaced by Crosson.
Knotts was consulting with Judge Haws, who was in meetings about whether or not commissioners needed to approve Kainer’s appointment.
Most recent developments
In response to the Sublette County Attorney’s Office Dec. 10 motion to reverse and vacate a magistrate’s order to suppress its evidence, the Pinedale judge has assigned the entire case to another court.
On Dec. 23, Judge Curt Haws responded to the motion and said he reviewed Magistrate Clay Kainer’s order that tossed a deputy’s report of a June 27 stop and check of an out-of-county livestock trailer.
As a result of the prosecution’s challenge of Kainer’s order and the validity of Kainer’s appointment in question, Judge Haws made the following findings in his own order.
“After careful review of the pleadings filed herein as well as the record of hearings and decisions reached by Magistrate Kainer, the Court makes the following findings,” the order said.
Of Kainer’s order to suppress the deputy’s report of the livestock check, the judge “finds the magistrate’s reasoning and decision to be sound and appropriate. … The state failed in its burden to establish that law enforcement’s contact with Mr. Rammell complied with constitutional requirements.”
As for Kainer’s appointment as magistrate, which county commissioners did not properly vote on as required by law until their Dec.17 meeting. However, Judge Haws’ order notes the prosecution did not raise the issue until Magistrate Kainer ruled against the evidence.
“The Court finds at all relevant times he and Magistrate Kainer acted in a good faith belief that the magistrate’s appointment was properly conducted,” says Judge Haws’ order.
Judge Haws had recused himself at the beginning of Rammell’s case and transferred it to Kainer. Now his Dec. 23 order assigns the prosecution’s motion to reverse and vacate Kainer’s ruling to Circuit Court Judge Robert Castor in Albany County.
Any scheduling will take place based on Judge Castor’s calendar, although all court records will be maintained in Sublette County.
Joy Ufford is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.