Last June, the Wyoming Supreme Court unanimously held that the Wyoming Constitution does not require that a canine sniff of a vehicle’s exterior be supported by probable cause. Chief Justice Kate M. Fox authored the court’s opinion in Joseph v. State,[1] which considered two consolidated appeals from denials of motions to suppress by defendants who were arrested after canine sniffs of the exterior of their vehicles led to the discovery of illegal drugs.[2] The appellants argued that the canine sniffs were conducted without probable cause and therefore violated the Wyoming Constitution.

In the first case, Wyoming State Trooper Nicholas Haller observed Maria Ann Joseph’s silver Kia SUV cross the centerline four times on Interstate 80 in Carbon County, Wyoming.[3] He pulled Joseph over and explained why he pulled her over before advising her that he was going to let her off with a warning.[4]

Joseph explained that she was traveling home from Spokane, Washington, to Canton, Ohio, and that from there she was bound for Elkins, West Virginia, to speak at a vigil for her deceased son.[5] She further explained that she would be speaking “at other vigils in Arizona and maybe Nevada.”[6] During their initial conversation, Trooper Haller observed luggage in the back seat of Joseph’s vehicle which was covered by a blanket.[7] Joseph explained that the luggage contained her deceased son’s property, which she was taking to Elkins.[8]

Joseph did not have her vehicle registration, so Trooper Haller asked her to join him in his patrol car while he checked the vehicle records.[9] Once inside the patrol car, Trooper Haller noticed that Joseph was very talkative and nervous, which he thought was strange, considering he already had told her that he was only going to issue a warning.[10] As their conversation continued, Joseph stated that her son had been dead for 15 years, which Trooper Haller also found odd because she had previously told him that she was bringing her son’s belongings home.[11] Based on the combination of Joseph’s behavior, the inconsistency in her statements, and the luggage he observed in the back seat of the Kia, Trooper Haller determined that he had probable cause to detain Joseph.[12]

Trooper Haller then called in a drug detection canine, which alerted its handler to the scent of drugs on the back of Joseph’s vehicle.[13] Trooper Haller searched the vehicle and discovered “four large suitcases that contained multiple vacuum-sealed packages of raw marijuana.”[14] A more thorough search of the vehicle later revealed “approximately twenty-five pounds of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) wax, two pounds of psilocybin mushrooms, and fifty-eight pounds of raw, plant-form marijuana.”[15]

Joseph was arrested and charged with multiple felonies. She moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the canine sniff of her vehicle’s exterior was a search that was not supported by probable cause, and thus violated the Wyoming Constitution.[16] The district court denied the motion and accepted Joseph’s conditional guilty plea to a single count of possession of marijuana with intent to deliver while reserving her right to appeal.[17]

In the second case, Wyoming State Trooper Brandon Deckert was working a “canine criminal interdiction detail in Laramie, Wyoming.”[18] “Rather than patrolling the highway, Trooper Deckert was using consensual encounters with individuals who had stopped for fuel to investigate and uncover criminal conduct.”[19]

While at a truck stop in Albany County, Trooper Deckert observed a white 2021 GMC Yukon Denali that had stopped for fuel.[20] He recognized that this type of vehicle was uncommon in the area and suspected it was a rental.[21] Trooper Deckert saw Kevin Curtis fueling the Denali and started a conversation with him. Curtis explained that he was headed to Ohio to see family and that he and another person had been looking at real estate.[22]

Approximately two or three minutes into the conversation, Jackson Tarzia, Curtis’s fellow traveler, returned to the Denali.[23] Trooper Deckert noticed that Tarzia was “rigid and standoffish,” in contrast to Curtis’s “relaxed and conversational” demeanor.[24] As the conversation continued, Trooper Deckert “observed inconsistencies and oddities in their travel plans and descriptions of their real estate business.”[25] Trooper Deckert commented to Curtis that the Denali was a nice car, and Curtis responded that he and Tarzia had rented it in Las Vegas.[26] Trooper Deckert asked to see the rental agreement, and as Tarzia “tried to show him the contract on his cell phone, Trooper Deckert observed that he was breathing heavily and his hand shook as he held his phone.”[27]

Upon reading the agreement, Trooper Deckert discovered that the vehicle had been rented in San Francisco—which significantly contradicted what he had been told.[28] At that point, he suspected the pair of being engaged in criminal activity and detained them.[29] After reading Curtis and Tarzia their rights, Trooper Deckert called for backup and retrieved his canine from his patrol car.[30] The canine alerted on the rear right wheel well and door.[31] Trooper Deckert then searched the vehicle and found “149 vacuum-sealed bags of raw material in duffle bags, weighing a total of roughly 150 pounds.”[32]

Tarzia was arrested and charged with felony possession of marijuana and felony possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.[33] Like Joseph, Tarzia moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was not supported by probable cause and therefore violated the Wyoming Constitution.[34] The district court denied the motion and accepted Tarzia’s conditional guilty plea.[35]

The Wyoming Supreme Court opened its analysis by observing that the Fourth Amendment clearly does not prohibit the challenged canine sniffs.[36] The court then shifted its focus to Article 1, Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution,[37] which it has previously interpreted to be “more protective than the Fourth Amendment.”[38] Wyoming Supreme Court precedent notably requires state courts to analyze claims arising under provisions of the Wyoming Constitution first and independently of any analysis of their federal counterparts.[39] 

The court explained that it has “prescribed several factors to guide an independent analysis under the Wyoming Constitution,” including: “‘(1) the textual language; (2) the differences in the texts; (3) constitutional history; (4) preexisting state law; (5) structural differences; and (6) matters of particular state or local concern.’”[40] It stressed, however, that “‘[l]itigants need not engage in a rigid, formulaic analysis to convince us to consider independent state constitutional grounds.’”[41] The court has previously instructed that while “litigants must provide proper argument and briefing using a precise and analytically sound approach . . . that requirement’s purpose is to provide assistance, not to create obstacles to state constitutional analysis.”[42] The court has “never required litigants to, at the minimum, examine [all six factors] to properly present a state constitutional claim.”[43] In the context of the Wyoming Constitution’s search and seizure provision, the court has observed that “only the fourth and sixth [] factors—preexisting state law and matters of particular state or local concern—are helpful to our analysis.”[44]

Turning to consideration of preexisting state law, the court rejected the appellants’ argument that because the court previously extended greater protections to the interior of a vehicle under the Wyoming Constitution, this heightened protection must also extend to the outside of a vehicle as well.[45] The court explained that the relevant question in this case “concerns the privacy interest in the public airspace outside a vehicle” and noted that “Appellants point to no state precedent recognizing such a privacy interest, particularly considering the minimally intrusive nature of an exterior canine sniff.”[46]

The court further explained that its existing precedent weighs against finding a privacy interest in the airspace around a vehicle. The court analogized to a prior case in which it denied a motion to suppress after police arrested a man on an outstanding warrant and discovered that the backhoe he was hauling at the time of the arrest was stolen by consulting the product identification number located on the underside of the backhoe.[47] There, the court determined that the defendant lacked any privacy interest in the backhoe, and, as a result, there was no search within the meaning of Article 1, Section 4. The court found it significant that “the trailer was parked in a public parking area and the defendant had taken no steps to conceal it from view.”[48] Obtaining the product identification number from the backhoe, the court said, was a situation that involved “‘looking at and not in, and the object was open and notoriously available for inspection.’”[49] The court concluded that the appellants failed to demonstrate the existence of a privacy right in the airspace outside of one’s car. “[E]ven if an exterior sniff could be considered an intrusion,” the court explained, the appellants failed to demonstrate that the sniff “would be unreasonable under all the circumstances if not supported by probable cause.”[50]

The court was no more persuaded by the appellants’ arguments addressing matters of particular state or local concern. First, the appellants offered persuasive authority from other state high courts which held that canine sniffs of storage units, vehicle exteriors, or luggage required reasonable suspicion.[51] The court declined to follow the lead of any other state high court because “none of the decisions on which Appellants rely required that an exterior vehicle sniff be supported by probable cause.”[52]

Second, the court rejected the appellants’ argument that the exterior of a vehicle should be afforded greater protection because hemp is legal in Wyoming, a police canine cannot differentiate between marijuana and hemp, and thus an exterior sniff may cause an intrusion upon lawful activity.[53] The district court found that it was not clear whether a police canine would alert to hemp while searching for illegal drugs, and as a result, when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court’s decision, the court affirmed the district court’s finding that appellants had failed to establish that the police canines could have, or would have, alerted to hemp.[54]

Third, the court rejected the appellants’ reliance on the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in People v. McKnight,[55] in which it determined that Colorado’s decision to legalize marijuana by constitutional amendment “created a concomitant constitutional right to privacy in the possession of marijuana.”[56] The court observed that “Appellants point to no similar constitutional implications or rights that flow from the legalization of hemp in Wyoming,” and that “the Colorado court did not address how the legalization of marijuana created a privacy interest in the airspace outside the vehicle.”[57]

Finally, the court dismissed the appellants’ argument that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement violates Article 1, Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution if there are no exigent circumstances to justify the search. The court explained that this argument was “not supported by independent state constitutional analysis,” and therefore the court would not consider it.[58]



[1] 530 P.3d 1071, 1072 (Wyo. 2023).  

[2] Wyoming does not have an intermediate appellate court. Instead, the Wyoming Constitution gives the five-member Supreme Court “general appellate jurisdiction for both civil and criminal matters as well as a general superintending control over all inferior courts.” 2020 Wyo. Legis. Serv. Off. Short Report, State Court Structures and Judge Selection, 20SR002, at 3.

[3] Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1072.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. at 1072–73.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 1073.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 1074.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. at 1075 (citing cases). 

[37] Article 1, Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution states that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated, and no warrant shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by affidavit, particularly describing the place to be searched or the person or thing to be seized.” Wyo. Const. art. I, § 4.

[38] Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1075.

[39] Id. at 1075 n.2.

[40] Id. at 1075.

[41] Id. at 1075–76.

[42] Id. at 1076 (quoting Sheesley v. State, 437 P.3d 830, 836 (Wyo. 2019)).

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] See Pellatz v. State, 711 P.2d 1138, 1140 (Wyo. 1986). 

[48] Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1076 (citing Pellatz, 711 P.2d at 1139).

[49]  Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1076 (quoting Pellatz, 711 P.2d at 1142).

[50] Joseph, 530 P.3d at at 1077.

[51] Id. (citing cases).

[52] Id.

[53] Id. at 1077–78.

[54] Id. at 1077, 1077 n.2, 1078.

[55] 446 P.3d 397 (Colo. 2019).

[56] Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1078.

[57] Id. (citing McKnight, 446 P.3d at 420).

[58] Joseph, 530 P.3d at 1078.

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