from the nation's-road-pirates-strike-again! dept
Possibly legally-obtained funds traveling from Point A to Point B? Those belong to the law enforcement middlemen. That’s how Wyoming’s top court explains things, in a decision [PDF] that says money obtained from legal drug sales in other states can be stolen by cops who operate in a state where this drug isn’t legal.
Those who pass through Wyoming with large quantities of cash beware — the state can confiscate cash linked to drug marketing that might be legal elsewhere, but is illegal here.
Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Keith Kautz penned a Thursday opinion on behalf of the high court, saying that the state can keep $75,000 found in possession of a man who was reportedly transporting the cash and marijuana as he passed through from Illinois to California. The state can keep that money because it was linked to drug transactions that would be illegal if committed in Wyoming.
Holy hell. That is a bad ruling. There’s an “if” in that sentence, and that “if” draws the line between legality and illegality. That should matter. If the out-of-state transactions were legal in those states (this case involves both California and Illinois — two states that have legalized marijuana in some form), the simple fact that the funds passed through a state that hasn’t legalized marijuana use/purchases shouldn’t matter.
But the court here holds that it does. Even though no crime was committed in Wyoming, the state’s highest court says nothing else matters but the fact that marijuana possession/use/distribution is illegal in Wyoming.
Not that this should surprise anyone. Wyoming’s forfeiture laws, despite recent reforms, still leave a lot to be desired. That any reform actually occurred is something of a miracle, considering the state’s top lawmakers still seem to believe taking money from random people (without prosecuting them for alleged crimes) somehow slows the flow of drugs in (or through) a state no one really considers to be a top destination for narcotics. And they still insist this is true, even when cops do things like take $92,000 from a traveling musician just because he violated the state’s seat belt law.
In this case, $75,000 was at stake. That was enough to push the state attorney general, Bridget Hill (whose office directly benefits from forfeitures) to appeal the lower court’s ruling, which sided with the person who had his money stolen by Wyoming law enforcement officers.
The decision notes there was possible criminal activity afoot when Lorenzo Gallaga was pulled over by state troopers for doing 84 mph in a 75 mph zone on Interstate 80.
On July 29, 2020, a Wyoming highway patrol trooper stopped Mr. Gallaga for speeding while he was driving westbound on Interstate 80 in Laramie County. Mr. Gallaga told the trooper he was traveling from Illinois to California. As they were talking, the trooper smelled raw marijuana; when questioned about the smell, Mr. Gallaga “produced a carton of hemp cigarettes as the explanation for the odor.” The trooper detained Mr. Gallaga to search the vehicle, which yielded $75,000 in U.S. currency and numerouscontrolled substances including marijuana, concentrated tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), and MDMA (otherwise known as Ecstasy). Law enforcement also discovered five cell phones and written records showing transactions involving the sale of marijuana products. Downloads from the cell phones revealed voicemails discussing what law enforcement believed to be marijuana growing and distribution operations.
Now, most of the “controlled” substances (excluding the MDMA) were only “controlled” in Wyoming. They were legal elsewhere, including the two states (California, Illinois) Gallaga referenced during the traffic stop. Not only that, but he provided the most-likely source for the “raw marijuana” the state trooper claimed he smelled. The phones and MDMA weren’t discovered until after Gallaga was arrested and his car was searched more thoroughly before being towed.
At the point the legalized theft occurred, the trooper had nothing more than a speeding ticket and a logical explanation for the origin of the weed odor. The “downloads” obtained later add nothing to the probable cause, seeing as they likely discussed completely legal grow operations and transactions in either California or Illinois.
Sure, criminal charges were brought. But the state DA realized it would be far more profitable (and easy) to pursue this under civil forfeiture, which means the state troopers and the DA could be expected to profit from this unexpected windfall without ever having to prove Gallaga’s money or THC was illegal (or illegally-obtained) in the state of Wyoming.
Consequently, the government opted to move forward with a civil forfeiture, which it believed would be an easy win. Much to its surprise, it suffered a loss in the lower court, even as that court admitted Gallaga’s testimony did not create a credible paper trail for the money or the drugs found in his possession. Even so, the most uncomfortable fact could not be denied: if any criminal activity occurred, it did not occur in Wyoming. (All emphasis mine.)
Based upon its findings of fact, the district court concluded the State “proved by clear and convincing evidence that, on and prior to July 29, 2020, [Mr.] Gallaga was actively engaged in the cultivation, promotion, use, sale, and distribution of controlled substances” in other states, specifically California and Illinois. Nevertheless, it ruled the $75,000 was not subject to forfeiture because the State did not “prove any date or location of any purported or intended exchange” of money for controlled substances, “no dollar amount of such an exchange, no specific quantity of controlled substance, and no identified participant other than [Mr.] Gallaga.”
According to the court, the State did not prove Mr. Gallaga “intended to, or did, business of any sort in Wyoming” or that the currency “was furnished in exchange for a controlled substance in violation of the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act[.]” Instead, Mr. Gallaga merely “pass[ed]-through” Wyoming with the currency. In other words, the district court concluded Mr. Gallaga had not violated the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act.
The higher court says none of this matters. What matters is whether or not it’s easy to steal stuff in the supposed furtherance of enforcing state and federal drug laws. The state does not need to prove Gallaga is guilty of violating state law. All it needs to show is (at a standard much lower than probable cause) that the money might have been obtained by actions that are illegal in Wyoming, but not necessarily illegal in Gallaga’s home state or destination state (Illinois and California). If you drive through Wyoming to conduct legal drug business in other states, I guess you should probably leave your money at home.
The State also proved the $75,000 was proceeds of, or used to facilitate, a conspiracy to cultivate and distribute marijuana, as required for forfeiture under § 35-7-1049(a)(viii). Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, the State was not required to show the currency was proceeds from a specific transaction or exchange of controlled substances so long as it proved a connection between the currency and the conspiracy to engage in conduct which would violate the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act.
Well, that’s fucked up. No government at any level will bring criminal charges (or extremely weak criminal allegations) against people conspiring to commit a completely legal act. But this decision says Wyoming’s law enforcement is more than welcome to do this, especially if it allows people to walk away from dismissed charges but only if they do so without their personal property that has been seized by opportunistic law enforcement officers.
Lots of things “would” violate law. But they only violate law when they actually violate law. In this case, drug transactions taking place in two states where such drug transactions are legal has nothing to do with Wyoming law, which only governs activity that takes place within the borders of Wyoming.
Having ignored all logic, the state Supreme Court comes to this conclusion:
The State met its burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence the $75,000 seized from Mr. Gallaga was traceable to the exchange of controlled substances or otherwise used to facilitate activities which, if undertaken in this state, would violate the Wyoming Controlled Substances Act.
And there it is. The state’s highest court says things that violate state law allow officers to seize property and bring criminal charges even if the state can’t demonstrate — at any level — the illegal activity took place within the state’s borders.
This is an insane holding. Even if just restrict ourselves to traffic violations, this means Wyoming cops can cite people for not having a front license plate (even if it’s not required in their home state) or for emissions violations (even if the driver’s home state has no such emissions requirement). This makes everyone who passes through Wyoming subject to the particularities of its laws, even when drivers aren’t residents, aren’t expected to know the local laws, and would be — in the other 49 states — fully compliant with state regulations.
State laws apply to state residents. For everything else, federal law and the Constitution control. This decision says what might be illegal in Wyoming controls the activities of people who just happening to be using its roads temporarily. This is a bullshit decision backed by bullshit reasoning. The lower court had it right: Gallaga did not commit criminal activity within Wyoming’s borders. Everything that followed his stop was just law enforcement enriching itself at the expense of someone just passing through.