The state treasurer, House majority floor leader and House Judiciary Committee chairman testified in support of the farmers.
By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com
CHEYENNE—A Laramie County judge threw out drug trafficking charges against hemp advocates and farmers Debra Palm-Egle and Joshua Egle Thursday, finding prosecutors lacked probable cause that the mother-and-son duo intended to grow and distribute marijuana.
At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams also dismissed charges against a contractor and his wife, Brock and Shannon Dyke, who worked for the farmers and were on the property when the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation raided it in November 2019.
Prosecutors sought to charge all four with conspiracy to manufacture, deliver or possess marijuana; possession with intent to deliver marijuana; possession of marijuana and planting or cultivating marijuana. All but the last are felonies. The judge dismissed all charges, including a misdemeanor marijuana charge, a court clerk said Friday.
Lawyers for the defendant argued, and the judge ultimately ruled, that the farmers had intended to produce hemp, not marijuana. The day of the raid, Brock Dykes showed DCI agents the results of tests conducted on the crop that indicated it contained less than 0.3% THC.
Under Wyoming’s hemp statutes, the crop has to have a THC-concentration limit below 0.3%. Marijuana and hemp are derived from the same plant. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical in marijuana that gets users high. Its low presence in hemp keeps the crop from being categorized a drug.
Acting on a tip, DCI ultimately seized 700 pounds of hemp from the Egles’ farm. When agents ran it through a series of their own tests, most test results came back with THC concentrations higher than 0.3%. The highest result was 0.6%.
Laramie County Assistant District Attorney David Singleton, who prosecuted the case, argued that any plant testing over 0.3% is marijuana, not hemp. The judge, however, said it was clear the farmers intended to grow hemp, citing as evidence Dyke’s presentation of earlier test results to DCI and the Egles’ long history as hemp farmers.
Reached by phone Friday, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Anne Manlove declined to comment on the case.
The dismissal of the case at such an early stage in criminal procedures — during a preliminary hearing — is unusual. Tom Jubin, a lawyer for the Egles, said that during his decades-long career this was only the third of his cases to end at that early stage.
“It’s pretty rare but it’s also pretty rare that a prosecutor would take a case like this and push it,” Jubin told WyoFile after the judge’s verdict.
“Please, have the courage to get these people home,” Jubin asked the judge during his closing remarks. In June, a different judge restricted Deborah Palm-Egle to Laramie County, though her home is in Colorado, her son told WyoFile.
Judge Williams’ own comments before her verdict were brief.
She understood why prosecutors had chosen to bring the case, she said, but did not believe they had probable cause. She also reprimanded the Egles, who had begun growing their hemp crop without a license while state and federal authorities were still developing rules for the newly legalized crop.
The Egles were prominent activists in front of the Legislature who helped push Wyoming’s hemp bill through. House Majority Floor Leader Eric Barlow (R-Gillette), who took the witness stand Thursday, testified that he knew the Egles and understood them to be hemp farmers with no intention of growing marijuana. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Dan Kirkbride (R-Chugwater) and Wyoming State Treasurer Curt Meier submitted statements with similar testimony in support of the Egles.
As such, the Egles “knew the law as well as anyone,” Williams said, and should have been licensed.
Under Wyoming statute, the Egles could face a $750 fine for growing hemp without a license. Such a penalty is a far cry from the decades of prison time they could have gotten if convicted on prosecutors’ charges.
After the judge’s ruling, Shannon Dykes rushed to tearfully embrace Palm-Egle, who is in a wheelchair. “Thank God it’s over,” Palm-Egle said.
Joshua Egle began growing what he described as a test crop of hemp for research purposes before he got his license, he told WyoFile after the hearing. Working in unfamiliar soil, it would take time for farmers to understand how to harvest the plants at the right time to keep THC concentrations legal, he said.
At the time, he was betting officials would soon work out the new industry regulation kinks and allow him to license the crop, he said. In the meantime, “we had to get going,” he said.
The Egles, and other hemp proponents, have pitched the crop as a new outlet for Wyoming’s farmers, and a viable path for economic diversification for a state struggling with its dependence on the energy industry. Egle will continue to pursue hemp farming in Wyoming, he said.
On Nov. 4, the Dykes were at the Egles’ property in Albin, a farming village in eastern Laramie County near the Nebraska line. The Egles, who live principally in Colorado, were not home. Brock Dykes was taking advantage of fresh snow to burn some waste wood, he told WyoFile in an interview after the judge’s verdict Thursday.
Dykes and his wife were standing outside and saw a line of unmarked cars, and one Wyoming Highway Patrol car, coming toward the property, he said. Their first thought was someone had called in concern about the smoke, he said. His two sons, then 11 and 12 years old, were inside the farmhouse.
Law enforcement officers, who ultimately turned out to be DCI agents, came out of the cars in tactical gear and with rifles pointed at the couple, the Dykes said, yelling at them to “put their fucking hands up.” Brock Dykes saw “five or six officers with a battering ram” approaching the door of the house where his sons were, he said. He yelled that it was unlocked and they didn’t use the ram.
Officers trained guns on the two boys as well, the Dykes said. It was 45 minutes to an hour before Shannon Dykes was able to see her sons, she said.
The investigation had begun when a “reliable source of information” called DCI concerned that the Egles were growing marijuana, according to the charging documents. DCI agents visited the farm several times and spotted what they believed to be marijuana plants drying in an open barn.
DCI agents never contacted the Egles, either before the raid or during the five months between the raid and pressing felony charges, according to the DCI investigator’s testimony during the trial.
“You sought charges against these farmers for crimes that carry decades of prison time without ever talking to them?” Jubin asked DCI Special Agent John Briggs, who led the investigation, during the hearings.
“I did not interview them, no sir,” the investigator answered.
The Dykes were never handcuffed during the raid, they said. Testimony during the preliminary hearing, which took place over two afternoons in July and August, established that Brock Dykes tried to explain the Egles were growing hemp. He showed officers the THC testing results Joshua Egle had sent him, which were on his cellphone.
Briggs was not interested in those results at the time of the raid, Dykes told WyoFile. Briggs told Dykes “I’m not going to argue with you about the technical difference between hemp and marijuana,” Dykes said.
The Dykes’ attorney, Michael Bennett, asked the judge to consider what kind of criminal would “show [testing] proof to agents, as if it were some elaborate ruse to grow the worst marijuana in the entire universe.”
DCI agents confiscated 722 pounds of plants, according to the affidavit. During the court hearings, Briggs testified that then-agency director Steve Woodson, and then assistant-director Forrest Williams drove a vehicle to the farm to collect the crop. Woodson retired in early 2020, and Williams is today the agency’s interim director.
Though relieved at the judge’s action Thursday, the Dykes remain angry at the DCI agents and prosecutors who brought such heavy charges against them. The young couple and small business owners have had to pay for weekly drug tests since early June, and spent considerable money on a lawyer, they said.
“This is all very, very surreal,” Dykes said.
The hemp industry has now progressed in Wyoming, and a number of people around him are growing the crop, he said. “How many more people are growing right now whose neighbor is going to call the police?” he said.
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