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Haskell v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

August 1, 2018

STEPHEN RICHARD HASKELL, Appellant (Defendant),
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff).

          Appeal from the District Court of Sublette County The Honorable Steven R. Cranfill, Judge

          Representing Appellant: H. Michael Bennett, Bennett Law Group, P.C., Rawlins, Wyoming; Timothy K. Newcomb, Laramie, Wyoming. Argument by Mr. Newcomb.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Attorney General; Christyne M. Martens, Deputy Attorney General; Caitlin F. Harper, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Benjamin E. Fischer, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr. Fischer.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and BURKE [*] , FOX, KAUTZ, and BOOMGAARDEN, JJ.


         [¶1] Appellant, Stephen Haskell, appeals his convictions for obtaining property by false pretenses, acting as a public officer before qualifying, submitting false claims with intent to defraud, and wrongfully taking or disposing of property. We reverse his conviction for obtaining property by false pretenses and affirm his remaining convictions.


         [¶2] We phrase the issues on appeal as follows:

1. Was there sufficient evidence to support Mr. Haskell's felony conviction for obtaining property by false pretenses under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-3-407(a)(i)?
2. Did the trial court abuse its discretion when it did not instruct the jury that the elements of the crime of obtaining property by false pretenses included finding Mr. Haskell obtained both possession and title of Sublette County's property?
3. Was ordering uniform items a duty of the office of Sublette County Sheriff for the purposes of Mr. Haskell's conviction for performing the duties of a public officer before qualifying, in violation of Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-5-116?
4. Was the evidence sufficient to support a conviction for submitting a false claim with intent to defraud under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 6-5-303(b)?
5. Did cumulative error deprive Mr. Haskell of a fair trial?


         [¶3] Stephen Haskell won the August 2014 primary election for Sublette County Sheriff on a platform that included purchasing new uniforms for the sheriff's office. He became the sheriff-elect after the general election in early November and began preparing to take office. His preparations included a meeting in late November with two of the sitting county commissioners. The three men discussed the sheriff-elect's plans, including purchasing new uniforms, but the commissioners did not explicitly or implicitly authorize Mr. Haskell to order any uniforms.

         [¶4] Nevertheless, without first consulting with the sitting sheriff or seeking formal approval from the board of county commissioners, Mr. Haskell set out to order new uniforms and related items, such as patches and badges. He wanted the uniforms for himself and the future members of his command staff to be ready to wear by January 5, 2015, the date of his swearing-in ceremony. He personally placed orders with two companies the sheriff's office had done business with in the past. However, he placed the orders in name of the sheriff's office and did not personally pay for the ordered items. Witnesses from one of the companies later testified they were concerned the orders came prior to Mr. Haskell taking office and did not come from the sheriff's office staff the company normally worked with.

         [¶5] On January 5, 2015, Mr. Haskell and his new command staff arrived at the ceremony wearing new uniforms. County officials and employees at the ceremony took notice. At their meeting the following day, the commissioners criticized Mr. Haskell for ordering the uniforms before he had been sworn in. Some of the items Mr. Haskell ordered had not arrived before the swearing-in ceremony, but Mr. Haskell told the commissioners the only items he ordered were what he and his command staff wore at the ceremony. The value of those items was reportedly around $900. Mr. Haskell told the commissioners he would pay for those items.

         [¶6] After the commissioners' meeting, an employee who regularly processed invoices for the sheriff's office received invoices from one of the companies and noticed the order dates were before the new sheriff was sworn in. The employee notified Mr. Haskell about her concerns, and Mr. Haskell contacted the companies to change the order dates in their records to dates after January 5, 2015. The companies complied. Afterwards, Mr. Haskell told the employee the office would be receiving new invoices and he directed her to shred the original copies, which she reluctantly did. However, when the employee later received the modified invoices from the company, she again went to Mr. Haskell and told him that she was uncomfortable submitting the documents to the county commissioners to approve payment. Mr. Haskell downplayed her concerns. When a second employee separately received the amended invoices, and approached Mr. Haskell about her concerns, he dismissed those as well.

         [¶7] Around early February, the county commissioners received invoices and vouchers for payment from the companies and learned Mr. Haskell had ordered more items than he originally represented. The commissioners revisited the issue at their next board meeting on February 17, 2015, which Mr. Haskell attended. The commissioners told Mr. Haskell they would not pay for items ordered before January 5. Mr. Haskell reiterated he would pay for anything ordered before that date. The commissioners ultimately approved paying for the items the invoices listed as ordered after January 5, but, unknown to the commissioners, those items included some whose order dates Mr. Haskell had modified. The commission approved payments of around $12, 000 to the two companies. The commissioners testified that they relied on the order dates represented by Mr. Haskell and would not have paid for the items if they had known the order dates were incorrect.

         [¶8] Weeks later, a county dispatcher came across a recording of one of Mr. Haskell's calls to the companies asking them to change the order dates. The commissioners eventually obtained and reviewed the recording. They requested the Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) to look into the matter, and DCI's investigation led to criminal charges and Mr. Haskell's arrest. He was charged under five counts: Count I - felony of obtaining property by false pretenses; Count II - felony of wrongfully taking property; Count III - felony of submitting a false claim with intent to defraud; Count IV - misdemeanor of public officer acting before qualifying; and Count V - official misconduct.

         [¶9] Mr. Haskell's jury trial began on February 21, 2017, and lasted four days. The State rested its case on the third day and Mr. Haskell's counsel moved for a judgment of acquittal under W.R.Cr.P. 29 on Counts I, II, and V. Regarding Counts I and II, defense counsel argued the State had not proven the county passed title to its property to Mr. Haskell. For Count V, he claimed the State had not shown any official duties regarding which Mr. Haskell had committed an unauthorized act with intent to obtain pecuniary benefit. The court granted the motion regarding Count V and denied it for Counts I and II. The court dismissed Count V and sent Counts I through IV to the jury.

         [¶10] After considering the Rule 29 motion, the court held a jury instruction conference. The court's jury instructions included a general instruction on the elements of the crime of obtaining property by false pretenses. Relevant to the issues on appeal, Mr. Haskell asked the court to also instruct the jury to find that Mr. Haskell had to obtain both title and possession of the county's property, as required by our decision in Bohling v. State, 2017 WY 7, 388 P.3d 502 (Wyo. 2017). The State's attorney told the trial court Mr. Haskell's proposed instruction was a correct statement, but argued instructing the jury members on the "title concept" would confuse them. The trial court accepted the general elements instruction, but rejected Mr. Haskell's proposed instruction and did not instruct the jury on obtaining title and possession.

         [¶11] On the morning of the trial's fourth day, the trial court met in chambers with counsel to discuss a note the court had received from a juror indicating that juror, or multiple jurors, had heard enough and did not need their notebooks.[1] Defense counsel argued the note was direct evidence there was a juror who had already made up his mind without hearing the defense's case. The trial court offered to allow defense counsel to question the note's author. However, Mr. Haskell's counsel passed on the opportunity, stating he was uncomfortable putting the juror on the spot and thought it would do more harm than good. Instead, the trial court reminded the jury members of their responsibility to listen to all of the evidence before retiring to deliberate, and the defense presented its case.

         [¶12] The jury found Mr. Haskell guilty of the four charges brought before it: obtaining property by false pretenses, acting as a public officer before qualifying, submitting false claims, and ...

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