A jury found Shneur Zalman Mendelsohn guilty of interference with a peace officer after he pleaded not guilty to the charge earlier this year.
He will be sentenced in Teton County Circuit Court at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 23, but his attorneys say he plans to appeal.
Mendelsohn was charged after he allegedly did not cooperate with a search warrant for a blood draw after a Teton County Sheriff’s Office deputy suspected him of driving under the influence.
From the defense’s standpoint, Mendelsohn is an upstanding citizen wronged by the county. From the prosecutor’s point of view, Mendelsohn — regardless of his status — simply didn’t follow a judge’s order to cooperate with a law enforcement officer.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Mendelsohn obstructed the successful execution of a lawful search,” Teton County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Zane Aukee said during closing arguments. “Law enforcement was unable to obtain evidence that it was entitled to, pursuant to that warrant.”
On Jan. 29 at 1 a.m., an affidavit states, Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Jenkins noticed a vehicle passing him on Highway 89 with no illuminated tail lights, leading Jenkins to pull over the vehicle. When Jenkins did, he noticed Mendelsohn’s eyes were bloodshot and that he made slow and deliberate movements, leading to Jenkins’ thought that Mendelsohn was impaired, according to the affidavit.
Jenkins then asked Mendelsohn to perform field sobriety tests, which he did poorly on, according to Jenkins’ affidavit. The affidavit states that when Jenkins asked Mendelsohn to complete a breath test, Mendelsohn refused, leading Jenkins to obtain a search warrant from Teton County Circuit Court Judge James Radda to draw his blood which would later be tested for alcohol.
When Mendelsohn was transported to St. John’s Health, where the blood draw was to be taken, he refused to comply with the search warrant and didn’t allow his blood to be drawn, the affidavit states. He was then booked for driving under the influence, not having tail lights illuminated and interference with a peace officer. The DUI charge was later dismissed.
In the defense’s opening statements, attorney Bob Schroth said: “We have a different take on what the evidence will show in this case, and that’s why we’re here today. The evidence will show that the rabbi is an asset to our community. He’s a father of seven kids. He is a dedicated family man and does nothing but good for our community.”
Schroth continued that Mendelsohn actually had his tail lights on when he was pulled over and that, while his eyes were bloodshot, it was because he had been awake since 6 a.m. the day before.
He added that Mendelsohn did fine on his field sobriety test, “but in any event, the deputies arrested the rabbi and proceeded to take him to jail.”
They did so, Schroth argued, without properly serving Mendelsohn with a search warrant; he argued no officer read to him the search warrant.
The long-winded Teton County Circuit Court case — with hundreds of pages of court files — includes back-and-forths on such matters as religious freedom and identifying Mendelsohn, rabbi of the Chabad Jewish Center of Wyoming, as a rabbi during trial.
Through the state, Aukee filed a motion in limine to “exclude any and all questions, evidence, testimony, or reference regarding Defendant’s religion, faith, and place of worship and affiliation, as well as the use of the term ‘rabbi’ as an honorary title in trial, including during the jury selection process.”
In the motion, Aukee said further: “The State believes Defendant intends to produce evidence relating to his religion, faith, and status as a cleric in an attempt to bolster his credibility and his theory of the case,” a case that Aukee said had nothing to do with Mendelsohn’s religion.
In his reasoning for the request to omit this evidence, Aukee repeatedly refers to Wyoming Rules of Evidence Rule 402, which stipulates that relevant evidence is generally admissible, and irrelevant evidence is inadmissible in court. Additionally, he referred to Rule 610, which states, “evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature his credibility is impaired or enhanced.”
Throughout the ensuing case, however, Mendelsohn was referred to as rabbi dozens of times.
During closing arguments, Schroth told the jury, “You are essentially the consciousness of the community when it comes to issues like this. And what we have presented to you is a situation where there was a wrong committed. It can be righted.”
In turn, Aukee said, “Members of the jury, this is a simple case. On Jan. 29, 2021, the defendant, Mr. Mendelsohn was suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol without properly illuminated tail lamps. You heard evidence of this and ask yourself, why is there no DUI charge?”
He went on to detail how Mendelsohn allegedly obstructed the deputies, giving them no evidence to charge him with a DUI since the Sheriff’s Office has a policy not to forcibly draw blood even if there is a lawful search warrant for that blood.
“His repeated statements that he did not consent was a verbal indication that he was not going to comply with a blood draw,” Aukee said. “That being said, the evidence has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Mendelsohn interfered with a police officer.”
Alex Freeburg, another of Mendelsohn’s attorneys, said his client plans to appeal because the “underlying DUI charge was baseless and because Mendelsohn was never shown the warrant for the blood draw and the whole idea of charging someone for interference when they refuse to consent is very troubling.”
“The DUI charge was challenged by an expert witness since it was riddled with false statements by the officer and was later dismissed by the court at the request of the prosecutor,” Freeburg said in a statement. “Still, surprisingly, prosecutors would not dismiss the related Interference with a Peace Officer charge which was a result of Rabbi Mendelsohn calmly yet firmly verbally expressing that ‘I do not consent to a blood draw’ without first speaking to an attorney to clarify his legal rights while his arm was out and his sleeve rolled up for the blood draw.”
Freeburg concluded the statement, saying: “The rabbi plans to appeal the verdict and is confident that justice will ultimately prevail.”