Wyo. Supreme Court rules that officers owe 'duty of care' to suspects, not all justices agree

Mar. 30—CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers "owe a duty of care" to handle investigations in a "non-negligent" manner.

While the opinion was passed by a 3-2 majority, the two dissenting justices issued a lengthy opinion, expressing their disagreement with the precedent the opinion set.

The decision hinged on two central questions of legal precedent in Wyoming:

— "Does a law enforcement officer acting within the scope of his or her duties as such owe a duty of care to the suspect(s) in a criminal investigation to conduct that investigation in a non-negligent manner?"

— "If the answer to the first question is yes, is the law enforcement officer entitled to assert qualified immunity under Wyoming law?"

The background

The opinion, issued Tuesday and delivered by Justice Lynne Boomgaarden, was based on an appeal by Deborah Palm-Egle. In 2019, she was living on a property in Albin where Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation officers seized "327,600 grams of plant material" in connection with a hemp-growing operation that officers were told was marijuana.

The officer named in the complaint, DCI Officer Jon Briggs, was tipped off to a "suspected marijuana growing operation" in the area, and went to the property to speak to someone. Though nobody was home, the opinion stated that DCI officers saw a barn and greenhouse on the property. Officers reportedly found a broken window on the barn and were able to photograph a "green leafy substance" inside. Briggs wrote an affidavit and requested a warrant to search the property, during which DCI seized the "plant material."

During the service of the warrant, an unidentified individual associated with the plant growing provided DCI with documentation from September of 2019 that rated their plant samples as 0.0% THC (the chemical in marijuana that people use to get high) content. DCI sent 10 samples of the plants for testing, which showed a THC level around 0.3%. That number is considered the statutory threshold for the plant to be considered marijuana instead of hemp.

Those tests were used to charge Palm-Egle with three felonies and one misdemeanor. The information used in the charging documents cited the tests done by DCI, but not the documents provided to officers that showed no THC content in their samples.

"The presiding circuit court judge declined to bind over the three felony offenses, noting that Ms. Palm-Egle had been held out as an expert in hemp, was instrumental in passing legislation legalizing hemp in Wyoming, and that the low levels of THC in the plant material — close to 0.3 percent — reflected an intent to produce hemp," the opinion read.

"The circuit court found no probable cause for the intent elements of the charged offenses, declined to bind the matter over to district court, and dismissed all counts."

In 2022, Palm-Egle filed a civil action in state district court, chiefly against Briggs and DCI alleging a violation of her constitutional rights. The claims moved to federal court and DCI moved to have them dismissed.

The federal court dismissed many claims, the opinion said, and issued a motion of summary judgment for some of the plaintiff's claims. The court said that "finding the existence of a legal duty of law enforcement officers to conduct criminal investigations in a non-negligent manner is ... an unsettled question of Wyoming state law."

This made the question an issue for the Wyoming Supreme Court, which the opinion noted was not provided with the initial complaint by Palm-Egle, information on the alleged negligence or information on the harm she allegedly suffered.

Supreme Court weighs in

In the opinion's discussion section, Boomgaarden said, on the behalf of the court, "We have long held that law enforcement officers, acting within the scope of their duties, have a common law duty to act as reasonable peace officers of ordinary prudence under like circumstances."

The opinion alluded to Briggs's defense, which the court said, "invited (them) to evaluate whether he owed a duty during his investigation by applying the eight-factor test we apply when evaluating whether to recognize a new duty."

The test includes considerations of harm to the plaintiff, closeness between the defendant and the alleged injury, certainty of the injury, policy of preventing future harm, and consequences to the community and courts, among other factors.

The court declined the invitation and said "the record and conditions presented here do not warrant any change from our usual course."

The idea of obligations to suspects as a "new duty" was a premise the court rejected, the opinion continued.

"We already recognized a duty owed by law enforcement officers to citizens," it read. "... Officer Briggs suggests that, because Ms. Palm-Egle was a criminal suspect subject to investigation, our analysis should be different. We disagree. Accused are assumed innocent until proven guilty."

The court also referenced claims about precedent from other jurisdictions, which it said "does not support departure from existing Wyoming law." Positioning Wyoming against other states, the court analyzed the idea of public duty. In some other states, law enforcement has a duty to the "general public" to identify and investigate crime, an obligation which does not extend to the complaining suspect. This was identified as the "public duty rule."

"We expressly rejected the public duty rule after examining it in some depth," the opinion said. "... The public duty only rule, if it ever was recognized in Wyoming, is no longer viable. ... We affirmed the public duty rule has never been a part of Wyoming's jurisprudence."

The court called the dichotomy between the duty to the general public over an individual "no longer viable."

Qualified immunity

When answering the second question presented to the courts, the majority of justices determined that officers are allowed to assert qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that limits what a law enforcement officer or government official can be sued for during the course of their work.

The court said that qualified immunity is a criteria for evaluating culpability in the course of an investigation but does not "reject any possibility of liability from the outset." Ultimately, the court ruled that officers "owe a common law duty to the suspect(s) in a criminal investigation" but are also allowed to assert qualified immunity in their defense, which does not guarantee protection.

Dissent

Two justices disagreed with the ruling: Justice Keith Kautz, who wrote the dissenting opinion, and Justice Kari Gray.

The opinion said the case law they cited, and analysis of it, failed to properly address the questions the court was considering. It said the majority opinion failed to provide analysis on the obligation officers have to a suspect.

"I conclude that an investigating officer does not owe such duty to a suspect," Kautz wrote. "... The majority opinion puts Wyoming in a unique position — it appears every other state which has considered whether criminal suspects may sue an investigating officer for negligent investigation has concluded he or she may not."

Kautz's dissent argued that the relationship between an investigating officer and a suspect is a unique one, and the court has yet to use the right criteria to consider whether the officer owes that duty to a suspect. He also mentioned that any decision the court made would need to be vague, given the fact that the court did not have any information on the damages Palm-Egle allegedly suffered. He added that the decision could, potentially, create a situation where prosecutors must be called to court to explain charging decisions.

"Juries will be required to allocate fault between investigating officers and prosecutors for the charges which were filed," Kautz wrote. "It is difficult to imagine how a jury will be instructed to determine the percentage of 'fault,' if any, which is allocated to the investigating officer and the percentage which is allocated to the prosecutor. ... Prosecutors, who should have complete discretion as to charging decisions, will no longer enjoy that status."

Had the majority used the same logic as his analysis, Kautz said, they "would have reached the same conclusion." "I would answer, 'No' to the question presented to us," he concluded.

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Samir Knox is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's criminal justice and public safety reporter. He can be reached by email at sknox@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3152. Follow him on X at @bySamirKnox.