More than half of the felony drug arrests in Albany County in 2016 involved out-of-state defendants — including three quarters of the cases involving at least a pound of marijuana.
In 33 of the 59 felony drug cases filed in the Albany County Clerk of District Court’s Office in 2016, the defendants were out-of-state residents, according to records from the Albany County Detention Center. Colorado topped the list with 10 defendants, followed by five from Utah. Other out-of-state defendants were listed as residents of New York, California, Illinois, Florida, Washington, Ohio, Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont and Georgia.
Of the remaining defendants, 18 were from Laramie, three from Rawlins and one each from Cheyenne, Ethete, Lander and Basin. Information for the last defendant could not be located in detention center records.
The number of drug felony prosecutions increased dramatically in Albany Country by nearly 400 percent from a total of 14 in 2015 to 59 in 2016.
The high volume of charged drug felonies appears to be continuing into 2017: as of March 13, 20 drug-related felony cases were filed in Albany County this year, involving 11 defendants from out of state and nine in-state defendants.
Wyoming Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Simmons said many of the misdemeanor drug possession cases his troopers see come from Colorado, where purchasing marijuana is legal, but in cases that involve the transportation of large quantities of drugs, it’s common to see defendants from coastal states, such as Washington or Oregon.
“A lot of our felony cases that we get that are self-initiated occur with people usually traveling from one portion of the country to another portion of the country, and they just happen to get caught for whatever reason in Wyoming, specifically in this area, in Albany County,” he said.
In Wyoming, the felony quantity for marijuana possession is 3 or more ounces. In 2016, 24 defendants were accused of possessing at least one pound of marijuana, and all but six were from out of state.
The highest quantity of marijuana reported in the court documents filed that year fell just shy of 293 pounds, and the two co-defendants were listed as out-of-state residents — one from New York and one from California.
Not all drug felonies were initiated because of quantity. According to court affidavits, 17 of the 2016 felony drug cases included a third or subsequent offense charge, meaning while the quantity of the drugs did not exceed the felony limit, the offense was charged as a felony because the defendant had prior convictions.
Although a few of the 2016 drug cases stemmed from search warrants executed on homes or other circumstances, the majority of the arrests resulted from an initial traffic stop conducted on the vehicle in which the defendant was a driver or passenger, almost always by a Wyoming Highway Patrol trooper or Albany County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
In the law enforcement affidavits filed with the charging documents, some of the most common reasons given for pulling the vehicle over were equipment violations, a cracked windshield or an outstanding warrant for the defendant’s arrest.
However, one factor appeared more frequently than the others in 2016: Speeding was cited as a factor in 24 felony drug arrests.
“I have noticed that,” Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent said. “That is one of the number one causes that I have observed in looking at the cases ... we often have wondered, if you have something illegal in your vehicle, why would you exceed the speed limit? But I think what happens frequently is the flow of traffic, maybe such that people exceed the speed limit.”
In the court documents, reasons stated for the subsequent search of the defendants’ vehicles included smelling the odor of marijuana, possible driver intoxication, general suspicion of possible criminal activity or contraband or statements from the defendants acknowledging the presence of drugs. In several cases, the arresting officers reported seeing drugs in plain view in the vehicle.
Trent noted multiple vehicle searches leading to felony drug arrests involved recovering bags, receipts and other items from dispensaries in Colorado.
“You’ll notice that there’s more than one individual in a vehicle, and they’re going from dispensary to dispensary and then they have the receipts,” she said. “And I’ve made the comment frequently, too bad we can’t return it down to the dispensaries to get the money from what we are recovering regularly in the past year. And we are seeing it more and more.”
Simmons described 2016 as “a busy year” and anticipates this year will also yield a lot of drug arrests.
“We’re definitely getting more experienced in that area,” he said. “I also think with the national trend of states legalizing marijuana people are thinking that it’s okay to transport marijuana, when it’s still highly illegal, especially in Wyoming.”