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Sorensen v. State

Supreme Court of Wyoming

July 24, 2019

MELANIE DAWN SORENSEN, Appellant (Defendant),
THE STATE OF WYOMING, Appellee (Plaintiff).

          Appeal from the District Court of Laramie County The Honorable Steven K. Sharpe, Judge

          Representing Appellant: Office of the State Public Defender: Diane M. Lozano, Wyoming State Public Defender; Kirk A. Morgan, Chief Appellate Counsel; Professor Lauren McLane, Faculty Director; G. Bryce Hamilton, Student Intern; and Emily Williams, Student Intern, of the Defender Aid Clinic, University of Wyoming, College of Law. Argument by Ms. Williams.

          Representing Appellee: Peter K. Michael, Wyoming Attorney General; Christyne M. Martens, Deputy Attorney General; Katherine A. Adams, [*] Senior Assistant Attorney General; Caitlin M. Kurnath, Assistant Attorney General. Argument by Ms. Kurnath.

          Before DAVIS, C.J., and FOX, KAUTZ, BOOMGAARDEN, and GRAY, JJ.

          GRAY, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] A jury found Melanie Sorensen guilty of possession of methamphetamine, a controlled substance (third or subsequent offense). At trial, the district court advised the jury they might want to wear gloves before examining the proffered evidence of the baggie containing the methamphetamine. Ms. Sorensen appeals from the jury's verdict claiming the district court's remarks on the evidence were error per se or in the alternative plain error, and that there was insufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict. We affirm.


         I. Did the district court's comments on the evidence constitute either error per se or in the alternative plain error?

         II. Was the evidence sufficient to establish the "knowledge" element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt?


         [¶2] On October 15, 2017, dispatch sent Deputy Mark Yocum to a residence in Laramie County after receiving a 911 hang-up call. He arrived at the address at about four in the afternoon and found Ms. Sorensen in a dispute with another resident. While at the residence, Deputy Yocum learned Ms. Sorensen had an outstanding arrest warrant from Carbon County and placed her under arrest. During a cursory search for weapons, Deputy Yocum asked Ms. Sorensen about a tassel hanging off her belt line. Ms. Sorensen explained it was part of her belt. Nothing was said about the pants she wore. Deputy Yocum then delivered Ms. Sorensen to the jail's detention staff.

         [¶3] Ms. Sorensen had admitted to using marijuana that day. Consequently, Sergeant Jennifer Stephens conducted a strip search before booking. Sergeant Stephens told Ms. Sorensen to disclose possession of any contraband. Although Ms. Sorensen said she had no contraband, she appeared to be looking for something while she removed her clothing. When Sergeant Stephens asked her if she was looking for something, Ms. Sorensen replied she thought she had twenty dollars somewhere.

         [¶4] Sergeant Stephens found a small baggie in the front coin pocket of Ms. Sorensen's jeans. Ms. Sorensen immediately claimed neither the jeans nor the baggie were hers. Sergeant Stephens delivered the baggie to Deputy Yocum for further processing, including analysis by the Wyoming State Crime Laboratory (Crime Lab). The Crime Lab report identified the substance in the baggie as methamphetamine.

         [¶5] At trial, defense counsel outlined the defendant's theory of the case in the opening statement:

The issue is not whether or not there was methamphetamine and whether or not it was on her person. The issue is about whether or not [Ms. Sorensen] was knowingly in possession of it. As the State already alluded, the baggy [sic] with the methamphetamine was found in the right front coin pocket of a pair of jeans. That little pocket, you can maybe get one or two fingers in when you put fingers in there. . . .
Miss Sorensen was living in a house with a whole bunch of people that would come and go. . . . [S]he [will] say that those weren't her jeans, that she didn't know that there was meth in the jeans. That's all there is to it.
It is not about whether or not there was drugs, not about whether or not it was on her person. It was about whether or not she knew it was there, whether she knew she had it in her possession when she was booked into the jail. That's it.

         [¶6] Deputy Yocum, the State's first witness, detailed the circumstances and events surrounding Ms. Sorensen's arrest, including his observation that the only other female present in the house was smaller than Ms. Sorensen. He testified that after he received the baggie from Sergeant Stephens, he sent it to the Crime Lab. The prosecution had Deputy Yocum review the Crime Lab report and then offered it into evidence. It was received without objection and exhibited to the jury. The prosecution then introduced the baggie.

         [¶7] After Deputy Yocum identified the baggie found in Ms. Sorensen's pocket, the prosecution requested a sidebar. The prosecutor asked the judge if there was a problem passing the evidence to the jury in the same manner as the report. The judge stated the jurors may have a problem because they may want gloves to handle the evidence. The judge suggested the prosecutor move for admission and then "just hold it and parade [the baggie] up and down before the jury as a way to properly publish it."

         [¶8] The baggie was admitted without objection. Prior to publishing this evidence, the court addressed the jury:

Ladies and gentlemen, I would tell you that I usually don't feel comfortable having jurors actually handle a substance like methamphetamine without any gloves. So you will have an opportunity in this case to inspect that in more detail if you would like during deliberations.
What we will probably do if you wish to do that is have you come into the courtroom and have you put on gloves if you want to do that during your deliberations.

         The defense raised no objection to the trial judge's statement.

         [¶9] The prosecution also called Douglas Kelly, a forensic latent fingerprint expert, who testified Ms. Sorensen's fingerprints were not found on the baggie. Following Mr. Kelly's testimony and while the jury was out of the courtroom, the trial judge noted the defense did not object to the chain of custody and the contents of the lab reports. Defense counsel responded, "Correct, Your Honor. And prior to starting the case [the prosecutor] and I did discuss the case, that we were not going to challenge chain of custody. We were going to stipulate to it as well as the contents of the report [sic] were going ...

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