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Wyoming Supreme Court Finds IAC Where Counsel Failed to Challenge Prolonging of Traffic Stop After Citation Completed

The Supreme Court of Wyoming held that a defendant’s counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the extension of the traffic stop that eventually uncovered evidence resulting in his conviction on multiple drug-related charges.

On July 10, 2017, Deputy Kyle Borgialli received notification from DCI agents regarding the description of two vehicles that agents believed had been involved in a drug transaction.

Borgialli located the vehicles and pulled one over on the premise that he had witnessed the driver commit a traffic violation, since the DCI notice did not constitute reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop.

During the stop, Borgialli ran the documents belonging to James Leonard Mills and verified that he had a valid license and insurance.

Borgialli then asked Mills to exit the vehicle so he could “explain” the traffic citation. Mills told the deputy to “explain it right here” and refused to exit the vehicle.

Officer Steven Dillard arrived on the scene with a drug-sniffing dog when Mills was refusing to exit the vehicle. Several officers were required to forcibly remove Mills from his vehicle. A pat search found methamphetamine and cocaine in his pockets. The drug dog alerted on the vehicle, and several items classified as drug paraphernalia were found in the vehicle along with $3,600 in cash.

Mills filed for suppression of the evidence on the grounds that Borgialli lacked reasonable suspicion required to initiate a traffic stop, alleging that Borgialli was lying about the violation he purportedly observed. Despite the dash-cam evidence not demonstrating the traffic violation (ostensibly because it was pointing in the wrong direction), the court found Borgialli’s testimony about the violation credible and denied the motion to suppress. Mills was subsequently convicted at trial.

On appeal, Mills claimed his attorney had been ineffective for failing to argue at the suppression hearing that the officers had unreasonably extended the traffic stop amounting to an unconstitutional seizure.

To prevail on an ineffective assistance claim, a defendant must show that his trial counsel rendered a constitutionally deficient performance, and, absent that deficiency, a reasonable probability exists that he would have enjoyed a more favorable verdict. Wall v. State, 432 P.3d 516 (Wyo. 2019).

Terry v. Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968), articulated a two-part test to judge the constitutionality of an investigatory traffic stop: “(1) whether the initial stop was justified, and (2) whether the officer’s actions during the detention were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first instance.” Quote from Garvin v. State, 172 P.3d 725 (Wyo. 2007).

To be reasonable, an “investigative detention must be temporary, lasting no longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop, and the scope of the detention must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification.” Brown v. State, 439 P.3d 726 (Wyo. 2019). And, “generally a driver must be allowed to proceed on his way without further delay once the officer determines the driver has a valid driver’s license and is entitled to operate the vehicle.” Harris v. State, 409 P.3d 1251 (Wyo. 2018).

The Court noted the suppression hearing focused on whether the initial stop was justified by the traffic violation. The State never presented evidence regarding whether officers had valid reasons to prolong the stop. However, on the evidence available on appeal, the Court declined to rule that Borgialli’s desire to “explain” the citation was sufficient cause to extend the stop, stating “a conclusion to the contrary would permit law enforcement to retain a citation and documents indefinitely in order to extend a stop that reasonably ought to have been completed.”

The Court concluded Mills’ counsel could reasonably have been expected to file a suppression motion on the ground that the stop was unconstitutionally extended and that, if granted, the suppression would have prevented his conviction. Thus, the Court held that counsel was ineffective on the suppression issue.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the convictions and remanded for a new hearing to allow the State to argue whether there were additional, valid reasons to extend the stop. See: Mills v. State, 458 P.3d 1 (Wyo. 2020).

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Related legal case

Mills v. State



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