Guilty Until Proven Innocent
By Rex Rammell
June 2019, I was moving horses to pasture from Rock Springs to Big Piney. A deputy sheriff passed me, turned around and flashed me down. I asked the officer what the problem was.
He said, “No problem,” he just needed to see my brand inspection papers since I was transporting horses from a different county. I told him I didn’t have time to get a brand inspection. He asked me to pull off the highway and unload my horses.
He then proceeded to inspect the animals – a mare with a foal and three yearlings. He took photos and recorded our conversation. He then informed me I had broken the law and he would have to cite me. I told him I thought he had broken the law by pulling me over without reasonable suspicion of a crime as found in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and also found verbatim in Article One, section four of the Wyoming Constitution.
He pleaded ignorance to my argument and said the sheriff’s policy was to cite people from another county pulling livestock without a brand inspection. I stated I would challenge the ticket in court, which I did.
I made a motion to suppress the evidence for lack of reasonable suspicion to stop. The magistrate granted the motion and the circuit court judge agreed and ratified the order.
I thought, “Great, the judicial system does actually work.” With victory gained, I thought random brand inspections on law-abiding citizens were over, at least in Sublette County.
More than a few ranchers were upset by the outcome of the case. They felt I had just removed a major deterrent from rustling. The case caused quite a stir in Sublette County and beyond.
Before I knew it, the district attorney had filed an appeal in district court. They argued the magistrate had been improperly appointed, nullifying his order.
Judge Justice John G. Fenn, who is now a Supreme Court judge, vacated the order and remanded it back for a new hearing before a new judge with specific instructions to rule the law constitutional or not using a salvage yard case in New York v. Burger.
The new circuit court judge was not from Sublette County. He ruled Wyoming Statute 11-21-103(a) was constitutional and brand inspections presented a special need suppressing the requirements of the Fourth Amendment – to have the right to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures.
At this time, I started thinking the original magistrate’s order upholding my Fourth Amendment rights was an anomaly and the judicial system I had come to know was back to normal.
We went to court and I lost. Big surprise. It was now my turn to appeal. The case is currently before another district court judge. It has been briefed and we are waiting on a ruling whether or not 11-21-103(a) is constitutional.
Wyoming Statute 11-21-103(a) reads: “Any inspector, game warden or peace officer of the county or state of Wyoming may stop any vehicle carrying livestock, poultry or carcasses thereof for the purposes of examining the owner’s permit and the contents thereof.”
Many ranchers inaccurately believe brand inspections are only required when crossing county lines. According to the above statute, anyone transporting livestock or their parts can be stopped anywhere, anytime.
I have argued every one that has ever owned livestock or poultry in Wyoming has broken this 1931 law at one time or another. If a livestock owner loads a horse, a cow or other livestock or their parts and drives down the road, he is required to have a brand inspection according to this law. There is no county-to-county language in the statute.
Believe it or not, there are no cases ever challenging this law in nearly 100 years, until now. However, I have heard of numerous stories about unhappy people being stopped, searched and forced to pay fines.
The fine for each of my four horses could have been $750 and/or six months in jail. The judge was kind to me. He only fined me $1,200, with no jail time as requested by the district attorney.
I stated in my closing arguments, it was ironic when I was in a courtroom, I was innocent until proven guilty, but as soon as I left the courtroom and loaded up my horse, I was guilty until proven innocent. I have argued in my briefs I shouldn’t have to prove my horses are mine, but the state should have to prove they are not. This is fundamental constitutional law.
What really disturbs me is the ignorance displayed by some of our elected officials who have held their hand up high and sworn allegiance to the Constitution, then go right out and, under the color of state law, violate it.
This case also shows how little the legislature of 1931 understood the Constitution. Many Supreme Court Fourth Amendment cases since then have ruled against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Bill of Rights enshrined in the U.S. and Wyoming Constitution guarantee individual rights, regardless of the will of the majority.
I have worked with ranchers as a veterinarian for 40 years. I own horses and cattle myself. I do not condone rustling in any form, but I also will not give up my individual liberties.
I asked the district attorney to find one case where random stops had ever found a livestock rustler. They could not produce one!
Rex Rammell is a veterinarian from Rock Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.