State Collects $122,000 from Traffic Stops in Southwest Wyoming

Authorities allowed to keep cash that was reportedly tied to drugs

A pair of traffic stops initiated by the Wyoming Highway Patrol in Uinta County turned up $122,000 in cash that the state will be allowed to keep. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Highway Patrol)

By CJ Baker

Special to the Wyoming Truth


What began as a pair of routine traffic stops in southwest Wyoming last fall and winter has turned into a $122,000 windfall for the state government.

District Court Judge James Kaste recently granted two forfeiture complaints filed by the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office. He worked in the office before becoming a judge last year. (Courtesy image from the Wyoming Supreme Court)

A judge ruled last month that the State of Wyoming can keep $27,000 that troopers seized from a California man in November and $95,000 taken from two Virginia men in January. Uinta County District Court Judge James Kaste found that the money “was knowingly and unlawfully used or intended for use in violation of the Wyoming Controlled Substance Act.”

In January’s stop, the Virginians were caught with a relatively small amount of marijuana, but the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office said authorities found photographs and text messages indicating they’d been involved in distributing much larger quantities. When they were pulled over on Jan. 19, the men offered no explanation for why they had $95,000 in cash, and in the months that followed, they did not seek to reclaim it. Their silence prompted Kaste to issue a default judgment in favor of the state on May 23.

“The State of Wyoming … should be authorized to retain or dispose of said property in any manner provided by law,” Kaste wrote.

Court records indicate the men’s trouble began when they abruptly merged into Interstate 80’s fast lane — right in front of Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Luis Tapia-Vera.

“I had to apply braking because the Chevrolet cut me off,” Vera wrote in an affidavit.

The trooper followed the Suburban and paced its speed at 85 miles per hour. Although that section of the interstate has variable speed limits, they never exceed 80 mph.

Vera stopped the vehicle about 5 miles east of Evanston and said he “immediately detected the odor of raw marijuana coming from inside the Chevrolet.”

When the trooper asked driver Travis W. McGuigan how much marijuana was inside the SUV, McGuigan reportedly responded that he had “just a little bit of personal stuff, man.”

In Virginia, the substance is generally legal to possess, and law enforcement officers are explicitly prohibited from using the smell of marijuana as the basis for searching a vehicle. In Wyoming, however, the drug remains illegal, and Vera began a search.

The trooper “immediately” found a glass jar labeled “Half-Baked” that contained apparent THC wax, plus other small amounts of wax, marijuana and paraphernalia, including a Rick and Morty-themed rolling tray.

The more significant find, though, was a locked “Cookies Dispensary” case. When Byrd and McGuigan said they didn’t know the combination, the trooper cut it open and found “a very large vacuum sealed bag that contained multiple bundles of rubber banded U.S. currency.”

Vera guessed it held about $95,000, which was later confirmed by a count at a bank.

“I know the innocent motoring public typically does not travel with that large amount of US currency,” the trooper wrote, adding that a drug-detecting K-9 later alerted to the scent of narcotics on the cash.

According to the affidavit, McGuigan said he knew nothing about the money while Byrd declined to speak with authorities. However, a search of two phones in the Suburban turned up photos “of large quantities of marijuana, as well as a large amount of United States currency,” Senior Assistant Wyoming Attorney Kellsie Singleton wrote in a February complaint seeking the forfeiture of the cash. Singleton added that text messages on the phones “confirmed communication regarding the distribution of marijuana.”

Under Wyoming law, cash, vehicles and other property used to facilitate or representing the proceeds of drug sales can be seized and forfeited to the state government through civil proceedings. The  at-times controversial cases are filed against the property, and the state only needs to prove the connection to illegal activity by “a preponderance of the evidence.” It’s a significantly lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases.

McGuigan and Byrd did receive misdemeanor criminal convictions from the Jan. 19 traffic stop, each being ordered to pay $470 and serve a year of unsupervised probation for possessing a controlled substance. McGuigan was never taken into custody; Byrd, who had prior possession charges in three states, was arrested and released the following day.

Another $27,000 for the state

The attorney general’s office uses seized funds to “defer drug enforcement related costs.” While the $95,000 was a relatively large seizure, forfeitures are not uncommon. About a week after Kaste allowed the state to keep that cash, the judge approved another $27,000 seized during a Nov. 21 traffic stop. That driver similarly came to law enforcement’s attention by speeding 93 mph on I-80 north of Fort Bridger, but the stop culminated in a more significant arrest.

Trooper Brandon Deckert and his K-9 Jager worked a November traffic stop that resulted in the arrest of a federal fugitive and the seizure of $27,000 of suspected drug money. (Courtesy photo from the Wyoming Highway Patrol)

Trooper Brandon Deckert became suspicious when the driver provided confusing and conflicting information. For instance, the man identified his passenger as his uncle, Angel, but “he did not know or did not know how to pronounce his uncle’s last name,” the complaint states.

“Angel” claimed to have lost his ID at a strip club. But authorities found his California driver’s license in the car and learned he was actually Luis Angel Torres-Garcia — a man federal prosecutors had been seeking since April 2019. Torres-Garcia was arrested and eventually sent to the Northern District of California to face a felony drug conspiracy charge.

The Drug Enforcement Administration alleges Torres-Garcia participated in a long-running trafficking ring, attempting to purchase 18 pounds of meth in August 2018 and delivering $14,500 worth of drug proceeds in February 2019. He has pleaded not guilty.

When Torres-Garcia was stopped in Uinta County last fall, authorities say he had a silver suitcase containing roughly $2,000, plus four rubber-banded and plastic-wrapped bricks of cash stashed in his front passenger seat; officers also found a plastic case that “produced the strong odor of marijuana.” Torres-Garcia said he intended to use the money to purchase a 1960 or 1967 Mustang in Nebraska, but authorities didn’t buy the story and seized it.

The attorney general’s office filed its complaint for forfeiture in March, but Torres-Garcia — who’s been free on an unsecured bond since late February — never filed a claim. That prompted Kaste to turn the $27,000 over to the state on May 31.

As for the driver of the car, he was never charged with a crime; authorities said they let him keep $1,540 they found in his backpack.

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