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