from the District Court of Carbon County The Honorable
Dawnessa A. Snyder, Judge
Representing Appellant: Office of the Public Defender: Diane
M. Lozano, State Public Defender; Kirk A. Morgan, Chief
Appellate Counsel; James Michael Causey, Senior Assistant
Appellant Counsel. Argument by Mr. Morgan.
Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney
General; Christyne M. Martens, Deputy Attorney General;
Caitlin F. Harper, Senior Assistant Attorney General; Samuel
L. Williams, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Mr.
DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.
A jury convicted Eric Richard Dixon of felony possession of
marijuana and possession with intent to deliver. Mr. Dixon
challenges his convictions by claiming the district court
erred when it denied his motion to suppress evidence obtained
during a search of his vehicle following a traffic stop, and
when it admitted the State's rebuttal evidence concerning
Colorado's medical marijuana law. Mr. Dixon also raises
claims of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance
of defense counsel. Finding no reversible error, we affirm.
Mr. Dixon raises four issues:
I. [D]id the district court err in denying Mr. Dixon's
motion to suppress?
II. Did the district court erroneously permit the
introduction of improper rebuttal evidence?
III. Did the prosecutor commit prejudicial misconduct through
the use of improper evidence and argument?
IV. Did defense counsel provide ineffective assistance by
failing to object to the admission of improper evidence?
On May 20, 2017, the Wyoming Highway Patrol received a
complaint of a light blue minivan with a dangling front
Colorado license plate, unlawfully passing vehicles near
Rawlins, Wyoming, at a high rate of speed, and nearly hitting
two cars. Trooper Jason Jurca located a vehicle driven by Mr.
Dixon that matched the description. After Trooper Jurca
observed Mr. Dixon commit further infractions, he initiated a
traffic stop and approached the vehicle on the passenger
side. He requested Mr. Dixon's driver's license,
registration, and proof of insurance, and commented about the
vehicle's condition, including its cracked windshield and
the hanging front plate. Mr. Dixon responded that his wife
was in an accident and hit a curb. When asked about his
travel plans, Mr. Dixon stated he was headed to Jackson Hole
to visit a friend for the weekend. Trooper Jurca returned to
his patrol vehicle after he confirmed the rear and front
license plates matched.
[¶4] Trooper Jurca processed Mr. Dixon's information
and prepared a written warning for the loose license plate
and cracked windshield. He re-approached Mr. Dixon's
vehicle and explained the reasons for the written warning. As
he handed Mr. Dixon the documents through the passenger
window, Trooper Jurca "smelled the very distinct odor of
marijuana." He told Mr. Dixon to "wait" and
instructed him to roll up his driver's side window, after
which Trooper Jurca leaned into the vehicle and smelled
marijuana again. Trooper Jurca also picked up "a little
green bud of marijuana" on the passenger seat and asked
Mr. Dixon if he had drugs in the vehicle. Mr. Dixon initially
denied having drugs, but later said he thought his wife might
have her "stash" in the vehicle.
Trooper Jurca placed Mr. Dixon in the patrol car, requested
backup, and searched Mr. Dixon's vehicle for drugs. He
discovered two small sandwich bags containing marijuana and
several partially smoked marijuana joints in the console
area. He also found marijuana concealed in the back of the
minivan contained in five vacuum-sealed bags each weighing
about one pound. Trooper Jurca placed Mr. Dixon under arrest
and transported him to the Carbon County Detention Center.
While at the jail, Mr. Dixon informed Trooper Jurca that he
was delivering the drugs to someone at a gas station in
Libby, Montana, in exchange for payment. He explained that
this was his first time doing anything like that, but he
needed the money because he was "doing poor
financially" and in jeopardy of losing his home and
business after a 500-year flood damaged his mining company in
Chile. A detention deputy overheard Mr. Dixon's
statements to Trooper Jurca about the planned drug
The State charged Mr. Dixon with two felonies: possession of
a controlled substance, and possession of a controlled
substance with intent to deliver. Mr. Dixon pleaded not
guilty to the charges. Prior to trial, he moved to suppress
evidence, alleging the warrantless search of his vehicle
violated both the state and federal constitutions because
Trooper Jurca unlawfully placed his head into the passenger
window to conduct a sniff search without consent or probable
cause. The district court denied the motion after an
A two-day jury trial commenced on November 14, 2017. The
State called several witnesses in its case in chief
including: Jeremy Williams, the person who reported Mr.
Dixon's erratic driving; Deputy Terrill, the detention
deputy who overheard Mr. Dixon's statements to Trooper
Jurca; and Rachel Chavez, a forensic specialist with the
Wyoming State Crime Lab. The State also called Trooper Jurca
and, through his testimony, admitted video clips of the
traffic stop and search. Defense counsel did not cross
examine the State's witnesses and the State rested.
The defense called Mr. Dixon as its sole witness. Unbeknownst
to the State, Mr. Dixon's trial strategy required
recanting his jailhouse admissions. At trial, he claimed the
marijuana belonged to his wife and that he had no knowledge
she had marijuana in the vehicle. Mr. Dixon first told the
jury that he and his wife were separated, but she allowed him
to borrow her minivan for his trip because his truck was in
the shop. Although he noticed the minivan smelled like
marijuana, it did not raise a "red flag" because
medical marijuana is legal in Colorado where they reside. Mr.
Dixon testified that his wife is a nurse and a medical
marijuana caregiver, and often transports marijuana for her
patients. He explained his understanding that Colorado law
permits a caregiver to have up to five cancer patients and
each patient may possess up to 16 ounces of marijuana.
Mr. Dixon next testified that he did not know about the
marijuana in the minivan. In addressing the video footage
showing his demeanor during the search, Mr. Dixon
acknowledged that he was nervous while Trooper Jurca searched
the vehicle, but testified his demeanor was largely out of
concern his dog would jump out and run into the
interstate; it was not due to concealed drugs. He
further acknowledged he became nervous when Trooper Jurca
started searching the large bag containing the marijuana, but
only because he had never seen the bag before, he did not
place the bag in the minivan, and he knew his wife
transported bulk marijuana as a caregiver and smoked
marijuana recreationally, too.
Mr. Dixon then recanted his admission about the planned drug
transaction. He testified he falsely told Trooper Jurca about
knowingly transporting the marijuana to Montana because he
thought if he "took the rap" for his wife and made
sure her nursing license was "safe, " it might
"sweeten the deal" with her in their divorce
proceedings pertaining to custody.
Mr. Dixon's trial strategy caught the State by surprise.
On cross-examination, the State worked to reinforce that Mr.
Dixon knowingly possessed the marijuana despite his recanted
admissions. The State played clips of the footage taken
inside the patrol car, which shows Mr. Dixon becoming
nervous, swearing, and putting his hands on his face each
time Trooper Jurca neared the bag containing
marijuana. Mr. Dixon admitted he showed "signs
of anxiety" and placed his hands over his eyes when
Trooper Jurca neared the bag even though he could not see it,
because he "knew there was going to be a lot of
marijuana in that bag." The State also questioned Mr.
Dixon's veracity and probed the weaknesses with his
defense theory. Mr. Dixon admitted he lied to Trooper Jurca
when he denied driving erratically on the night of the
traffic stop. He admitted he lied to Trooper Jurca about
trafficking marijuana in order to protect his wife even
though he knew he had the right to remain silent and no one
suspected the five pounds of marijuana might belong to her.
He admitted that he owns a mining company in Chile but made
up the story about having financial problems in order to take
attention away from his wife. Mr. Dixon admitted he lied on
Q. . . . You tell the truth and sometimes you lie; isn't
Q. It's not just on one occasion, though, is it? You do
it multiple times?
After being caught off guard by the defense's trial
strategy, the State obtained a fifteen-minute break to
prepare Trooper Jurca as its rebuttal witness. On rebuttal,
Trooper Jurca explained his familiarity with marijuana
trafficking. He opined that the marijuana found in Mr.
Dixon's vehicle was more consistent with trafficking than
with medicinal marijuana because it was double vacuum-packed,
tied shut in a black trash bag, and concealed in a large bag,
which is typically done by people trying to hide illegal
substances. The State provided Trooper Jurca with State's
Exhibit 13-a copy of the Colorado Constitution pertaining to
medical marijuana. Trooper Jurca read portions of the exhibit
to the jury. He summarized that Colorado law permits
caregivers to have up to two ounces of usable marijuana and
"six marijuana plants, with three or fewer being mature,
flowering plants that are producing a usable form of
marijuana[, ]" and opined Mr. Dixon's testimony
about the amount of marijuana a caregiver may legally possess
was inconsistent with Colorado law. The district court
admitted the exhibit into evidence at the conclusion of
Trooper Jurca's testimony.
On cross-examination, Trooper Jurca testified he had never
purchased marijuana from a dispensary or grower and had never
been a caregiver. He stated that he lived in Colorado for two
years as a student but was never a law enforcement officer
there. Concerning Colorado medical marijuana law, Trooper
Jurca admitted he had no idea how many times the law may have
been amended, whether State's Exhibit 13 was the current
and entire law on the subject, or whether a doctor can
permissibly prescribe more than the amounts described in the
exhibit. The State did not call any further witnesses.
The district court instructed the jury and the parties
presented closing arguments. The jury found Mr. Dixon guilty
on both charges. The district court merged the charges for
sentencing purposes and sentenced Mr. Dixon to four to six
years of imprisonment, with credit for 111 days of
presentence confinement. Mr. Dixon timely appealed.
The District Court Properly Denied Mr. Dixon's Motion to
Mr. Dixon filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence. He
argued the warrantless search of the minivan was unreasonable
and violated his rights under both the federal and state
constitutions because Trooper Jurca continually leaned his
head into the passenger window throughout the stop without
consent or probable cause.
At the suppression hearing, Trooper Jurca testified he
"smelled the very distinct odor of marijuana" as
the wind blew across his face while issuing a written warning
to Mr. Dixon. He told Mr. Dixon to "wait" and
instructed him to close his driver's side window, after
which Trooper Jurca stuck his head into the vehicle and
"smelled the odor of marijuana distinctly again."
In its written order denying the suppression motion, the
district court made the following findings:
(4) As Trooper [Jurca] is handing back Mr. Dixon's
paperwork and warning, indicating the end of the stop,
Trooper [Jurca] paused and smelled marijuana emanating from
(5) Trooper Jurca then directs Mr. Dixon to roll up [the]
driver side window to confirm that the smell is coming from
(6) Trooper Jurca leaned his head into [the] vehicle, and
while leaned in to confirm the smell, [he] saw and retrieved
the bud of marijuana on the passenger seat.
(7) Trooper Jurca has sufficient training and experience to
recognize the smell of, and the physical appearance of
(8) Trooper Jurca's presence at the vehicle included
reaching inside to exchange paperwork with Mr. Dixon,
including the return of license, paperwork, and to issue a
warning was both reasonable and lawful.
district court concluded that "Trooper Jurca possessed
probable cause to believe that marijuana was present in Mr.
Dixon's vehicle at the moment he smelled marijuana while
returning [Mr. Dixon's] paperwork" and, thus,
Trooper Jurca did not violate Mr. Dixon's federal or
state constitutional rights. On appeal, Mr. Dixon contests
the district court's findings and requests we reverse the
district court's order.
When reviewing a denial of a motion to suppress evidence, we
adopt the district court's factual findings unless those
findings are clearly erroneous. Rodriguez v. State,
2018 WY 134, ¶ 15, 430 P.3d 766, 770 (Wyo. 2018)
(citation omitted). We view the evidence in the light most
favorable to the district court's decision because the
court conducted the hearing and had the opportunity to
"assess the witnesses' credibility, weigh the
evidence and make the necessary inferences, deductions and
conclusions." Kunselman v. State, 2008 WY 85,
¶ 9, 188 P.3d 567, 569 (Wyo. 2008) (citations omitted).
"On those issues where the district court has not made
specific findings of fact, this Court will uphold the general
ruling of the court below if supported by any reasonable view
of the evidence." Feeney v. State, 2009 WY 67,
¶ 9, 208 P.3d 50, 53 (Wyo. 2009) (citation omitted).
"The ultimate question of whether the search or seizure
was legally justified, however, is a question of law we
review de novo." Rodriguez, ¶ 15, 430 P.3d
at 770 (citation omitted).
No Independent State Constitutional Analysis
Mr. Dixon argues that Trooper Jurca's actions were
unreasonable under the "more protective" provisions
of the Wyoming Constitution, but does not provide any
analysis that the outcome under the state constitution would
differ from the outcome under the federal constitution.
Rather, Mr. Dixon asserts the outcome is the same under both
constitutions and turns on whether Trooper Jurca's
actions were reasonable. We therefore decline to separately
consider whether the search of Mr. Dixon's vehicle
violated Article 1 Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution, and
instead conduct our analysis under the Fourth Amendment of
the United States Constitution. See, e.g.,
Lovato v. State, 2012 WY 10, ¶ 8, 269 P.3d 426,
428-29 (Wyo. 2012) (citation omitted) (declining to consider
whether a seizure violated the Wyoming Constitution where