CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Senate debated an aspect of House Bill 16 during their Tuesday, March 3 floor session.
The bill aims to consolidate definitions of various theft crimes under Wyoming law and modify some penalties.
The proposed bill would define theft as a felony when the value of stolen items is at least $1,500. However, theft of “a firearm, horse, mule, sheep, cattle, buffalo or swine” would classify as felony theft “regardless of value.”
Stealing livestock is an automatic felony under existing law as well.
Senate District 11 Senator Larry Hicks proposed an amendment that would keep it an automatic felony for stealing a firearm, but would repeal livestock theft as an automatic felony.
“My concern is that if somebody stole a pig that was worth $50 they are now a felon under this law,” he said. “If you want to fill the jails up with more felons, let’s send them to jail for a $200 pig.”
Senate District 01 Senator Ogden Driskill said that Wyoming should maintain stiff penalties for livestock theft.
“This was Wyoming’s first felony, rustling law,” he said. “It is there for a reason. Livestock theft is pretty easy.”
He said that under Hicks’ proposed amendment, “You can go to any rancher’s ranch and steal calves one at a time all day long and the worst that you are going to have is a misdemeanor.”
He said that having livestock theft considered a felony acts as a deterrent.
“There is a reason we have felonies out there,” Driskill said. “They deter crimes folks. Livestock theft in Wyoming really has not been a huge problem, let’s not make it one in the future.”
Senate District 30 Senator Charles Scott said that livestock theft “in our open range situation is a deadly serious [issue].”
“The crime that we do see on occasion…is where somebody has gone out with a high powered rifle and shot a cow or steer and butchered it right on the spot,” he said. “That is one of the most dangerous things that a rancher can come upon. We want to keep that felony penalty for those kinds of circumstances.”
He added that the monetary value of livestock might fall just over or just under the threshold for theft of such animals to be considered a felony which would create “a great deal of uncertainty as to what is going to be a felony and what isn’t.”
Scott added that in his view, the amendment would act as “an open invitation for people to go livestock rustling in the way it actually happens in this state.”
Senate District 20 Senator Wyatt Agar made a similar point saying that the “most common form of livestock theft is that day old, week old baby calf, baby lamb.” He said that calves tend to value between $300-350 and lambs value about $15 each.
Removing the automatic livestock theft felony rules would allow people to steal multiple young animals without crossing the threshold that would make it a felony.
Senate District 04 Senator Tara Nethercott said that she thinks Wyoming needs to strengthen trespassing laws and keep livestock theft as an automatic felony to protect the rights of rural landowners who “can’t manage to have eyes on all of this livestock.”
“This has been a longstanding law in our territory that stands a a strong deterrent,” she said. “This is a very dangerous amendment that I think flies against independent property rights [and] encourages trespassing.”
As the Senate continued to discuss the amendment, senators began to speak more loosely on the topic.
“You may be correct the swine-snitchers and the buffalo-embezzlers are just misdemeanor offenders,” Senate District 22 Senator Dave Kinskey joked. “But clearly the sheep-swipers and the cattle-kidnappers are felons. I’m against the amendment.”
According to this Smithsonian Magazine article about “Cattle Kate,” the Wyoming Territorial Legislature made branding another person’s livestock illegal in 1884.
Hicks’ comments after the Senate’s discussion of his proposed amendment made light of a darker aspect of frontier history.
“As I understand it correctly, we probably need a third reading amendment for this just to hang [livestock rustlers], because this is a pretty serious crime,” Hicks joked. “So I would hope that we could have that amendment coming up given that it is a territorial law. If it goes back that far, maybe we ought to make it a hanging offense for pig poachers.”
The Smithsonian article about “Cattle Kate” offers an example of the history of lynching in Wyoming which Hicks’ comments brought up.
“On July 20, 1889, in a gulch by the Wyoming’s Sweetwater River, six cattlemen lynched a man and a woman accused of cattle rustling,” Eliza McGraw writes in the Smithsonian article. “As the purported bodies twisted from the same tree limb: a rider galloped toward the town of Rawlins with the news: cattlemen had exacted revenge on two ruthless thieves, Jim Averell and Ella Watson, the woman they called Cattle Kate.”
“In reality, Watson wasn’t a bar fighter or famous for horsewhipping cowboys. She was only guilty of standing up to a system run by big cattle companies. The newspaper accounts, with their florid, overwritten flair, were likely reflections of how the lynchers wanted the story told. Who could fault them for taking matters into their own hands when Watson was a villain who deserved to hang?”
The Senate rejected Hicks’ amendment, meaning the bill would still define livestock theft as a felony regardless of the monetary value of the animal.
They passed the bill on second reading on Tuesday. The House of Representatives passed the bill on a third reading vote of 53-6 on Feb. 17.
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