A judge has dismissed the criminal case against a Natrona County woman who was arrested after she refused to turn over a lost wallet to police.
Deborah Heinrich is entitled to constitutional protection against double jeopardy, or being repeatedly tried for the same offense, Natrona County District Judge Thomas Sullins wrote in a decision published Friday.
Heinrich’s first trial ended when a circuit judge abruptly declared a mistrial. Prosecutors had sought to retry her for misdemeanor interference, prompting an appeal from her attorney.
Heinrich was elated by Sullins’ ruling, said her attorney, John Robinson.
“The nightmare prosecution for Ms. Heinrich is over,” Robinson said in a statement released Monday. “She looks forward to moving on with her life, exploring ways to repair the harms caused by her arrest and prosecution, and supporting law enforcement reforms that prevent other well-intended citizens from being unnecessarily arrested and prosecuted.”
Police arrested Heinrich in July when she declined to give them a lost wallet until she found out what the owner wanted done with it. She said officers behaved aggressively toward her and took her into custody even after she relented. Authorities say she was uncooperative and belligerent.
Critics questioned the decision to pursue a second trial. Asked about the criticism, Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen said his office sought a retrial because it wanted to resolve the case with a verdict. Press coverage of the case had also been slanted, he said.
The officers were in a difficult position, Blonigen continued. They would have faced criticism if they had left the wallet with Heinrich, only to have something happen to his finances.
“I think the police were caught between a rock and hard spot,” he said.
Sullins’ decision reverses a December ruling by Circuit Judge Michael Patchen, who denied Heinrich’s double-jeopardy claim.
Patchen presided over Heinrich’s first trial and declared a mistrial when her defense asked for an acquittal. Her attorney asserted the state hadn’t demonstrated that police acted in lawful performance of their duties when they made the arrest.
Instead of ruling on that motion, Patchen declared a mistrial, explaining that he and the prosecution should have time to research legal issues raised by the defense. A month later, the state filed notice that it intended to try Heinrich a second time.
A mistrial doesn’t automatically bar prosecutors from retrying a defendant after a mistrial. But to do so, the state must demonstrate there was a “manifest necessity” for the mistrial.
In Heinrich’s case, there were “insufficient facts” to meet that burden, Sullins wrote.
Patchen had other options besides declaring a mistrial, Sullins noted. A short delay in the trial would have provided time to examine legal issues raised by Heinrich’s defense. The trial court could have also used jury instructions to address whether police acted in lawful performance of their duties.
Heinrich found the wallet at a Casper gas station. She couldn’t reach the owner, so she contacted police to find out if anyone had reported it missing.
She declined to turn the wallet over to police until first hearing from its owner, a Colorado man named William McCreary. Police at her trial testified she was uncooperative and hung up on them multiple times. In a January interview, she blamed poor reception for dropping the calls and said police were aggressive and threatening.
Officers arrested her when they went to her home to get the wallet. She spent a night in jail.