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Wyoming's penalties for domestic violence are lighter than other crimes. Lawmakers want to change that.

A package of proposed bills would increase penalties for domestic and family violence in Wyoming and bring them in line with punishments for drug and property crimes.

As Wyoming’s statutes are now written, felonies are typically punishable by 10 years imprisonment. Aggravated felonies can warrant even longer prison sentences. But domestic and family violence crimes can result in far less prison time, said former prosecutor Brett Johnson.

The three bills, which Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said were born of a “holistic review” of Wyoming’s criminal statutes as they pertain to such crimes, were considered by the Joint Judiciary Committee in November.

The legislation the committee came up with would increase some domestic violence, stalking and strangulation penalties.

“The goal is to try to make the laws more uniform,” said Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton, D-Rock Springs, who helped craft the bills in committee.

Last spring, a bill that would have rewritten domestic violence laws failed in committee following concerns that the bill’s language wasn’t consistent with the rest of the state’s statutes.

Following the session’s wrap-up, the Legislature’s Management Council then charged the Judiciary Committee with studying domestic and family violence issues, Anselmi-Dalton said.

After months of work with lawyers, judges and victim services advocates, the committee met in November to hash out language in the proposed legislation. At the same time, the committee worked on legislation that would rewrite laws to lower speeding fines and simplify the fine structure, expand the path to exoneration for wrongly convicted people and close loopholes in marijuana laws.

The committee proposed one bill that would expand the definition of stalking to include actions that would make a reasonable person fear for their own safety, that of another person or for the safety of their property. Although the bill’s language initially did not require a victim to testify to those impacts, it was changed in committee to require that prosecutors show someone was affected, Anselmi-Dalton said.

The current state statute only covers actions that would make a reasonable person “suffer substantial emotional distress, and which does in fact seriously alarm the person toward whom it is directed.”

If passed, the bill would increase the maximum punishment for misdemeanor stalking from six months to one year and increase the maximum penalty for felony stalking from five years to 10. The bill also gives judges the ability to sentence a person convicted of misdemeanor stalking to up to three years of probation, rather than the maximum of one year.

Another bill, which pertains largely to the process for seeking orders of protection, would make it a felony to stalk someone while under a domestic-violence protection order.

A third bill, which focuses on bringing domestic violence penalties in line with one another, would elevate strangulation of a household member and third or subsequent convictions of domestic battery to violent felonies. Although many felony convictions can be expunged under Wyoming law after 10 years, violent felonies cannot.

It would also mean judges could sentence people to six months in jail on a first offense for domestic assault. People convicted a second time could be sentenced to a year in jail. Under the current laws, a first conviction for domestic assault is punishable by a fine and a second conviction is punishable by up to six months in jail.

The bill would increase penalties on a third conviction for domestic battery to 10 years imprisonment. Under the current system, that crime is punishable by five years in prison.

Johnson, who spent a decade as a criminal prosecutor in Sweetwater and Natrona counties before moving to Natrona County’s Child Support Office, said the bill would align domestic violence crimes with penalties for other crimes.

Most felonies are punishable by up to a decade in prison, unlike domestic and family violence crimes, which tend to carry maximum sentences of five years imprisonment, Johnson said.

“The Legislature can set the tone for how these crimes are treated ... by police, prosecutors and society,” he said.

The bills, which are sponsored by the committee, still need to be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature to be considered during the 2018 budget session. The session convenes Feb. 12.

Wyoming receives $292k in federal homeless grants, far less than comparable states

Despite having a homeless population roughly equivalent to at least three other states, Wyoming received far less federal grant money for its programs aimed at helping those experiencing homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Thursday that Wyoming would receive $292,329 in federal money for programs across the state as part of a nationwide grant competition. While that money is approximately the same amount the state has received for the past three years, it is the least amount in the country and falls short of other states with similar homeless populations.

According to HUD’s 2017 Point-In-Time Count, 873 people were homeless in the Cowboy State during one night in January 2017. A similar count found 943 homeless people in South Dakota, 994 in Delaware and 1,089 in North Dakota. While the count is not all-encompassing, it is the measure the federal government uses to mark changes in the homeless population across the country.

Despite the similar number of people experiencing homelessness, South Dakota received more than $1.2 million in federal grant money — more than four times the amount Wyoming received. Delaware received $7.9 million, approximately 27 times more money than Wyoming.

If broken down by the homeless population recorded in the point-in-time count, Delaware received approximately $8,000 for every homeless person while Wyoming received approximate $334.

The reason for the discrepancy? The federal grant program does not take into account a state’s homeless population when divvying up the money.

Instead, the department considers a number of factors including previous funding levels, service providers’ ability to meet performance standards, whether they employ federal best practices, strategic planning and partnerships, said Christine Baumann, spokeswoman for the department’s region that includes Wyoming. A federal official in a conference call with media Thursday called it a “performance-driven program.”

While the department considers rising housing costs and requests for special projects, it can be difficult for states to increase their funding levels.

“There’s just really not a chance to leap for huge increases from year to year,” Baumann said.

Wyoming’s funding level has remained steady in the past five years, federal documents show, though it decreased from a high of $327,000 in fiscal year 2014. This year’s funding is $718 more than the previous amount.

This year’s grant money will help fund permanent housing through Life Steps, permanent housing for chronically homeless families and an information system to track homeless populations in the state.

The total number of people experiencing homelessness in Wyoming has increased every year since 2014, though some specific populations — like families and veterans — have seen improvement.

Lyle Konkol, HUD Wyoming field office director, said in December that he couldn’t explain why the number of homeless people has risen despite moderate economic growth. Konkol did not return requests for comment for this story.

He did note in December that Wyoming’s programs to help homeless people are underfunded. The lack of money means programs have to spend more time searching for other sources of money.

“Our funding is tragically low compared to other states,” he said in December.

Trump slurs countries as he rejects immigration deal

WASHINGTON — In bluntly vulgar language, President Donald Trump questioned Thursday why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and "shithole countries" in Africa rather than places like Norway, as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal, according to people briefed on the extraordinary Oval Office conversation.

Trump's contemptuous description of an entire continent startled lawmakers in the meeting and immediately revived charges that the president is racist. The White House did not deny his remark but issued a statement saying Trump supports immigration policies that welcome "those who can contribute to our society."

Trump's comments came as two senators presented details of a bipartisan compromise that would extend protections against deportation for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants — and also strengthen border protections as Trump has insisted.

The lawmakers had hoped Trump would back their accord, an agreement among six senators evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, ending a months-long, bitter dispute over protecting the "Dreamers." But the White House later rejected it, plunging the issue back into uncertainty just eight days before a deadline that threatens a government shutdown.

Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate' s No. 2 Democrat, explained that as part of that deal, a lottery for visas that has benefited people from Africa and other nations would be ended, the sources said, though there could be another way for them to apply. Durbin said people would be allowed to stay in the U.S. who fled here after disasters hit their homes in places including El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti.

Trump specifically questioned why the U.S. would want to admit more people from Haiti. As for Africa, he asked why more people from "shithole countries" should be allowed into the U.S., the sources said.

The president suggested that instead, the U.S. should allow more entrants from countries like Norway. Trump met this week with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Late Thursday, Trump was pushing for "a Great Wall" and criticizing Democrats' stance on immigration, highlighting the difficulties for any negotiations.

"The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process. It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans," he said in a late-night tweet. "We must build a Great Wall ..."

Asked about the earlier remarks insulting other countries, White House spokesman Raj Shah did not deny them.

"Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people," he said.

Trump's remarks were remarkable even by the standards of a president who has been accused by his foes of racist attitudes and has routinely smashed through public decorum that his modern predecessors have generally embraced.

Trump has claimed without evidence that Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, wasn't born in the United States, has said Mexican immigrants were "bringing crime" and were "rapists" and said there were "very fine people on both sides" after violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, left one counter-protester dead.

"Racist," tweeted Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., after Thursday's story broke. But it wasn't just Democrats objecting.

Republican Rep. Mia Love of Utah, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, said Trump's comments were "unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation's values." She said, "This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation" and Trump must apologize to the American people "and the nations he so wantonly maligned."

Trump has called himself the "least racist person that you've ever met." He plans to sign a proclamation today honoring Martin Luther King Day.

Critics also have questioned his mental fitness to serve as president, citing his inability to muster some policy details and his tweets asserting his "nuclear button" is bigger than North Korea's. He responded to such criticism with a recent tweet calling himself "a very stable genius" who is "like, really smart."

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly describe the conversation. One said lawmakers in the room were taken aback by Trump's remarks.

The Trump administration announced late last year that it would end a temporary residency permit program that allowed nearly 60,000 citizens from Haiti to live and work in the United States following a devastating 2010 earthquake.

Trump has spoken positively about Haitians in public. During a 2016 campaign event in Miami, he said "the Haitian people deserve better" and told the audience of Haitian-Americans he wanted to "be your greatest champion, and I will be your champion."

The agreement that Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., described to Trump also includes his $1.6 billion request for a first installment on his long-sought border wall, aides familiar with the agreement said. They required anonymity because the agreement is not yet public.

Trump's request covers 74 miles of border wall as part of a 10-year, $18 billion proposal.

Democrats had long vowed they wouldn't fund the wall but are accepting the opening request as part of a broader plan that protects from deportation about 800,000 younger immigrants brought to the country as children and now here illegally.

The deal also would include restrictions on a program allowing immigrants to bring some relatives to the U.S.

In an afternoon of drama and confusing developments, four other GOP lawmakers — including hardliners on immigration — were also in Trump's office for Thursday's meeting, a development sources said Durbin and Graham did not expect. It was unclear why the four Republicans were there, and the session did not produce the results the two senators were hoping for.

"There has not been a deal reached yet," said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But she added, "We feel like we're close."

The six senators have been meeting for months to find a way to revive protections for young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children and are here illegally. Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year but has given Congress until March 5 to find a way to keep it alive.

Federal agencies will run out of money and have to shut down if lawmakers don't pass legislation extending their financing by Jan. 19. Some Democrats are threatening to withhold their votes — which Republicans will need to push that legislation through Congress — unless an immigration accord is reached.

File, Star-Tribune 

Kelly Walsh’s Jace Palmer yells in celebration after beating Green River’s Cyro Montoya in the 106-pound championship match last season at the Wyoming State High School Class 4A Wrestling Championships at the Casper Events Center.

Appeal by tribal member who shot an elk out of season reaches U.S. Solicitor General

A Crow tribal member’s legal battle, claiming 150-year-old treaty rights allowed him to kill a bull elk on national forest land in Wyoming in 2014, has made its way to the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Solicitor General Noel Francisco is the No. 3 official in the U.S. Department of Justice. As solicitor general he represents the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Courtesy photo 


On Monday, Francisco was “invited” by the Supreme Court justices to write a brief regarding Montana resident Clayvin Herrera’s request for a review of a lower court’s decision. Herrera was found guilty in a 2016 jury trial of killing an elk outside the state hunting season on the Bighorn National Forest. His appeals of that judgment have been upheld or dismissed by subsequent state and federal courts.

“As gatekeeper for the Court, the Solicitor General plays a sometimes delicate and difficult role,” wrote Stephen Wermiel on the SCOTUSblog. “The Court relies on the Solicitor General for an honest assessment of when a question of federal law or sometimes of constitutional rights really merits the Court’s attention.”

A review by the U.S. Supreme Court is Herrera’s last chance to argue that Crow tribal members’ right to hunt on unoccupied federal lands, guaranteed in an 1868 treaty with the federal government, are still valid. The high court accepts only about 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases that it is asked to review each year, according to the United States Courts website.

Wyoming courts have argued those treaty rights were revoked when Wyoming became a state and when the Bighorn National Forest was created, thereby making the federal lands occupied. The trial court refused to allow Herrera to argue treaty rights as his defense, saying the issue had been settled in previous cases.

But Herrera’s defense team says the contradictory interpretation of treaty rights by different federal courts has raised inconsistencies that only the U.S. Supreme Court can reconcile. Montana and Wyoming law professors as well as Little Bighorn College history professor Timothy McCleary have filed briefs supporting Herrera’s contention.

Monte Mills, a University of Montana law professor who filed a brief supporting Herrera’s case, said it could be springtime before Francisco files his brief with the high court. Mills said he’s glad the petition wasn’t rejected outright.

“This is precisely the type of matter the Supreme Court should be considering,” he said.

A decision in Herrera’s favor by the court, if it should take up the case, could affect at least 19 other tribes that were guaranteed off-reservation treaty hunting rights.

Herrera’s counsel, which includes Billings attorney Kyle Gray, filed a brief with the Supreme Court in November requesting that it order the lower court to provide its case record for review. Wyoming has, in part, argued that there is no case to review since the ruling was a matter of law.

In the conclusion of its 13-page brief, Herrera’s attorneys argue, “At bottom, there are no obstacles to deciding whether the rights of all Crow Tribe members should eternally be held hostage to legal reasoning that flunks every test of treaty interpretation, statutory interpretation, and common sense. But if these century-old federal treaty rights really are no longer the ‘supreme Law of the land,’ and Tribe members can be criminally convicted for engaging in expressly protected activities, the Tribe deserves to receive that extraordinary judgment from this Court.”

In the original judgment, Herrera was fined and ordered to pay costs of $8,080, received a suspended jail sentence and had his hunting privileges suspended for three years.

The case is Herrera v. Wyoming, case number 17-532.