UW gun case sent back to district court

LARAMIE — Albany County circuit court Judge Robert Castor sent the legal case regarding the legality of the University of Wyoming’s gun ban back to his downstairs neighbor in the courthouse, district court Judge Tori Kricken, after a Wednesday hearing.

The legality of UW’s gun regulation is being challenged through the misdemeanor prosecution of Lyle Williams, an Uinta County man who was cited in 2018 for open-carrying a gun at UW Conference Center at the annual Wyoming Republican Party Convention.

Last year, Castor stayed the criminal proceedings after Williams’s attorney, Jason Tangeman, asked Kricken for a declaratory judgment on whether UW’s gun ban violates either Wyoming statute or the U.S. Constitution.

Wyoming statute decrees that only the state has authority to regulate guns and that “no city, town, county, political subdivision or any other entity shall authorize, regulate or prohibit … carrying or possession of firearms.”

During the 2018 adjudication of the case, it seemed that the main legal question was whether UW is part of the state or if it is considered a “political subdivision or any other entity.”

But when Kricken issued a declaratory judgment in December 2018, she said the relevant statute, W.S. 6‑8‑401, actually only applies to guns manufactured in Wyoming.

While that statute has remain essentially intact since the mid-1990s, Kricken said it has, since 2010, only applied to Wyoming-made guns after that section was incorporated into the Wyoming Firearms Freedom Act.

In 2019, the circuit court prosecution of Williams restarted after the Wyoming Supreme Court threw out Kricken’s ruling, saying in a 3-2 decision that she had usurped Castor’s authority because, even though Castor stayed the case to allow for Kricken to consider a declaratory action, he had not explicitly authorized her to make such a ruling.

After a Wednesday morning hearing, Castor gave that explicit authorization through an order to “certify a question of law” in Kricken’s court. Regardless, Williams’s prosecution will remain in Castor’s court, and the judge said he’ll wait to make a decision about whether to grant Tangeman’s motion to dismiss the case until the question of law is answered.

“Resolving those questions may be determinative of this particular case,” he said.

Castor has been the county’s circuit court judge since 1984 and he said that arguments made Wednesday by Tangeman and prosecutors from the Albany County Attorney’s Office were “one of the finest presentations for a motion hearing” he’s heard during his time on the bench. County Attorney Peggy Trent had argued the state’s case on the motion to certify, while an intern in her office, Hailey Richards, argued on Tangeman’s motion to dismiss.

Tangeman said his goal is to get the case back to the Wyoming Supreme Court. Trent argued it would be better for Castor to make a determination as part of Williams’s prosecution, and then have parties choose whether to ask the Wyoming Supreme Court for a writ of review of Castor’s decision.

Kricken could decline to take up the case for a second time. Despite throwing out her ruling, the Wyoming Supreme Court did not discuss the merits of Kricken’s interpretation of W.S. 6-8-401’s limitations in their 3-2 decision.

Like Tangeman and two Wyoming Supreme Court justices, Castor said Wednesday there needs to be a final resolution about the extent of gun rights on campus.

“UW wanted this resolved and went to great lengths to get it resolved,” Castor said, referring to testimony from UW Chief of Police Mike Samp, who wrote Williams’s citation for trespassing.

Ahead of the April 2018 GOP conference in Laramie, UW officials were aware of the potential that some delegates might open-carry as a vehicle to challenge the gun regulations.

When Samp was informed on the morning of April 21 that there were, in fact, numerous GOP delegates open-carrying, he went to the UW Conference Center and wrote a single citation, despite numerous other delegates asking for a citation of their own.

“I didn’t want think it would be helpful to write a whole bunch of tickets for the same legal issue when one would be enough to get it in court and provide some clarity for all involved,” Samp said Wednesday.

Samp’s action to write a citation was endorsed by and discussed with other UW officials beforehand, including trustees former UW President Laurie Nichols. The day before the citation was issued, Samp had met with GOP chairman Frank Eathorne and former Albany County GOP chairman Ben McKay to discuss the “potential outcomes” of a confrontation with delegates.