Magistrate says brand inspection traffic stop was unreasonable

PINEDALE – 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. 

Deputy Ty Huffman, who saw a truck pulling a horse trailer on a Sublette County road, stopped Rex F. Rammell, of Rock Springs. 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. Rammell, who bought a Pinedale property earlier this year for a veterinary clinic, said he was bringing the horses to a pasture in Sublette County. 

Wyoming Statute 11-21-103(a) 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.” 

However, several questions arise that might affect the Circuit Court’s order’s viability.

Rammell, an unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in 2018, challenged the stop in Circuit Court of Judge Curt Haws, who recused himself and asked Magistrate Clayton Kainer to take the case. Kainer signed an oath of office and was appointed by Haws as a magistrate in January, along with two other magistrates. Circuit Court Clerk Amy Knotts would not comment about why the judge recused himself. 

At Rammell’s Dec. 9 pretrial conference, Kainer said he would rule by the next morning on Rammell’s Oct. 15 motion to suppress. Oral arguments were made in a Nov. 12 hearing but Kainer still had not ruled on the motion before the pretrial conference. 

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 that the June 27 stop was a violation of his state and U.S. constitutional rights as a warrantless search and seizure.

Cannon argued that 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 in his ruling: “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 that he would not restrict testimony of Rammell’s proposed witnesses on that issue – including Sheriff K.C. Lehr – until the trial. 

“(Rammell) asserts in sum that 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 that the driver, vehicle, trailer or livestock were engaged in a commercial activity,” Kainer 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 “a theft detection and prevention statute.” 

He continued, “Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that the State has failed to meet the burden imposed upon it by the U.S. Constitution to demonstrate that the warrantless seizure of (Rammell’s) vehicle was not unreasonable. Accordingly, any evidence obtained after Deputy Huffman ‘activated’ his lights was obtained illegally and shall not be admissible at trial.” 

Rammell could not be reached for comment before press time. County responses Sublette County Attorney Mike Crosson said Wednesday that 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 a 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 – “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 is safe and well taken care of.”