Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

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In this tragic case involving a charge of child abuse resulting in death, the issue presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether the defendant Sandra Archuleta was entitled to a modified unanimity instruction requiring jurors either unanimously agree that she committed the same act or acts underlying the child abuse charge or that she committed all of those acts. The prosecution charged and tried this case on the theory that Archuleta had committed the offense at issue by engaging in a single criminal transaction resulting in the child’s death. In light of the prosecution’s theory, the Supreme Court found no reasonable likelihood that the jurors disagreed on which specific act caused the child’s death, therefore, Archuleta was not entitled to a modified unanimity instruction here. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals judgment to the contrary, and remanded for consideration of Archuleta’s remaining contentions on appeal. View "Archuleta v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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On March 10, 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis declared a disaster emergency pursuant to the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since that time, the Governor relied on his authority under the Act to issue a wide range of executive orders suspending certain statutes, rules, and regulations in an effort to prevent further escalation of the pandemic and mitigate its effects. Among these was Executive Order D 2020 065 (“EO 65”), which (1) suspended the operation of certain statutes governing the ballot initiative process that require signature collection to take place in person; and (2) authorized the Secretary of State to create temporary rules to permit signature gathering by mail and email. Petitioners filed this lawsuit against Governor Polis and Secretary of State Jena Griswold, seeking a preliminary injunction against enforcement of EO65 and a declaratory judgment finding the Order unconstitutional under the Colorado Constitution and unauthorized under the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act. After ordering expedited briefing, the district court held a remote hearing via WebEx on May 22. In its May 27 Order, the district court concluded that (1) petitioners had not established the necessary factors outlined in Rathke v. MacFarlane, 648 P.2d 648 (Colo. 1982), to obtain a preliminary injunction; and (2) petitioners had not established an entitlement to declaratory relief under C.R.C.P. 57. The court also found that the petitioners’ claims against the Secretary were not ripe because she had not yet promulgated the temporary rules that EO 65 had authorized. The Colorado Supreme Court determined Article V, section 1(6) of the Colorado Constitution required ballot initiative petitions be signed in the presence of the petition circulator. "That requirement cannot be suspended by executive order, even during a pandemic." Judgment was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Ritchie v. Polis" on Justia Law

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Colorado has long followed the no-duty-to-retreat rule in self-defense cases. During the closing arguments of Shiela Monroe’s trial, the prosecution repeatedly argued that Monroe didn’t act reasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat. Although the trial court admonished the jury that Monroe didn’t have a duty to retreat, it instructed the jury that it could consider Monroe’s failure to retreat as relevant to whether she actually believed that she faced an imminent use of unlawful force. The jury found Monroe guilty of first degree assault and attempted first degree murder. Monroe appealed, arguing that because she had no duty to retreat the trial court should not have permitted any argument regarding her failure to do so, even if it was ostensibly directed at undermining the reasonableness of her claim of self- defense. A division of the court of appeals reversed Monroe's convictions. The appellate court abstained from deciding whether it was ever proper to argue that a defendant's failure to retreat undermines the reasonableness of a defendant's self-defense claim, but it concluded the prosecution's arguments impermissibly imposed on Monroe a duty to retreat and remanded for a new trial. After review, the Colorado Supreme Court held the prosecution could not argue a defendant acted unreasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat from an encounter. Thus, the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution’s arguments regarding Monroe’s failure to retreat. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals on different grounds. Monroe’s conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Colorado v. Monroe" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Supreme Court issued a rule to show cause in two cases out of Gilpin County, hoping to provide guidance on whether a trial court could grant the prosecution’s contested request for a continuance with a tolling of the statutory speedy trial period based on a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. In "Lucy," the prosecution has charged Maurice Lucy with criminal mischief, a class 2 misdemeanor. Lucy pled not guilty on June 12, 2019, but subsequently requested a continuance of his trial on October 9, 2019. As a result, his six-month speedy trial period was set to expire April 9, 2020. The county court scheduled his jury trial to commence on March 17, 2020, within the speedy trial deadline. In Meresa, the prosecution charged Desta Meresa with violation of a criminal protection order and unlawful sexual contact, both class 1 misdemeanors. Meresa pled not guilty on October 9, 2019, which meant that his six-month speedy trial period was set to expire on April 9, 2020. The county court scheduled Meresa’s jury trial to commence on March 17, the same day Lucy’s case was scheduled for trial. On March 16, 2020, the day before both cases were scheduled for trial, the Chief Judge of the First Judicial District issued an administrative order requiring that all jury trials set in the district through May 1, 2020, be vacated unless there were exigent circumstances presented or speedy trial constraints. The administrative order explained that this drastic measure was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the Chief Judge’s order, the county court vacated the trials in the two cases at issue. The prosecution immediately filed a motion to continue and requested a tolling of the speedy trial period in each case. It relied on section 18-1-405(6)(g)(I) C.R.S. (2019), which required the tolling of the speedy trial period for up to six months under certain circumstances when the court grants a continuance at the prosecution’s request without the defendant’s consent. The Supreme Court held that, absent the defendant’s consent, section 18-1-405(6)(g)(I) authorized a trial court to grant the prosecution a continuance with a tolling of the speedy trial period for up to six months if the prosecution established that: (1) as a result of a public health crisis, evidence material to its case is unavailable; (2) it has exercised due diligence to obtain that evidence; and (3) there are reasonable grounds to believe that the unavailable evidence will be available on the new trial date. Because the county court erred in these two cases, the decisions reversed and matters remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Lucy & Meresa" on Justia Law

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In response to high-profile mass shootings in the state, the Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012. In both attacks, the shooters used large-capacity ammunition magazines. In response to the shootings, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB 1224 to prohibit the same, transfer or possession of any "large-capacity magazine." Plaintiffs Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (a Colorado nonprofit organization), the National Association for Gun Rights (a Virginia nonprofit organization), and John Sternberg, challenged this law as an infringement on the right to bear arms - not under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but under article II, section 13 of the Colorado Constitution. They argued that HB 1224 therefore operated to ban practically all detachable magazines, violating Coloradans' state constitutional right to bear arms in defense of home, person or property. To this, the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed, concluding Plaintiffs' interpretation of the definition of "large-capacity magazine" was inconsistent with the provision's plain text because it ignored the narrowing language, "designed to be readily converted to accept[] more than fifteen rounds of ammunition." The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that HB 1224 violated the state constitutional right. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the court of appeals. View "Rocky Mountain Gun Owners v. Polis" on Justia Law

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Aldo Gabriel Gutierrez was driving a pickup truck, in which Julio Cesar Carrillo-Toledo was a passenger, on I-70 in Mesa County, Colorado. Colorado State Patrol Trooper Christian Bollen, who has extensive training in drug interdiction, noticed the truck, and initiated a traffic stop after witnessing two driving violations. Both passengers were asked to alight from the vehicle. The trooper asked and was given consent to search the truck. Trooper Bollen discovered three to five pounds of heroin in the tailgate of the truck. Both Gutierrez and Carrillo-Toledo were arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Before trial, Gutierrez and Carrillo-Toledo filed a joint motion to suppress the evidence discovered in the truck, alleging that Trooper Bollen stopped them without a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation. After a hearing, the trial court granted the suppression motion, finding that Trooper Bollen's belief the truck made multiple traffic violations was not objectively reasonable. Granting interlocutory review, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed the suppression order, finding that on the Court's interpretation of the plain language of the applicable statute and the factual record, the Trooper's stop was based on a reasonable suspicion a traffic violation had occurred. View "Colorado v. Gutierrez" on Justia Law

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De Etta Wester-Gravelle worked as a certified nursing assistant for a company called Interim Healthcare. During the time period in question, the company assigned her to care for a patient, W.M., who had suffered a stroke and needed assistance with tasks like bathing. W.M.’s partner, E.G., was also in poor health and could not perform such tasks for W.M. Interim Healthcare assigned Wester-Gravelle to visit W.M. five times per week for two hours each day. At the conclusion of each shift, Wester-Gravelle was required to have either W.M. or E.G. sign Wester-Gravelle’s shift chart to verify that she had been there. The charts would then serve as a record pursuant to which Interim Healthcare would pay Wester-Gravelle for her work. Wester-Gravelle had been assigned to work with W.M. for several months when, in late July or early August of 2015, her supervisor, Lisa Conley, made a routine visit to W.M.’s house during a time when Wester-Gravelle had been scheduled to be there. When Conley arrived, however, Wester-Gravelle was not there. Conley performed routine tasks of her own that day, and in the course of her conversation with W.M. and E.G., they said that they had not seen Wester-Gravelle in several weeks. After an investigation, the matter was transferred to the Colorado Attorney General, who prosecuted Wester-Gravelle on one count of forgery. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review was whether the court of appeals erred in concluding the prosecution had an obligation to elect the specific document or documents on which it would rely for conviction or, alternatively, that Wester-Gravelle was entitled to a "modified unanimity instruction" requiring the jurors to agree unanimously that she had committed the same underlying act of forgery or that she had committed all of the underlying acts. The Supreme Court concluded the trial court did not plainly err when it did not, sua sponte, require an election or give a modified unanimity instruction because any error was neither obvious nor substantial. The court of appeals' judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for consideration of Wester-Gravelle's remaining contentions on appeal. View "Colorado v. Wester-Gravelle" on Justia Law

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In an interlocutory appeal brought by the State, the issue presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review was whether the district court correctly granted Walter Wheeler’s pretrial motion to suppress after finding that deputies with the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Office conducted an unlawful investigatory stop of the Subaru in which he was a passenger. Although it was a close call, the Court ultimately concluded that the court erred: from the totality of the circumstances, and the rational inferences therefrom, provided the deputies reasonable and articulable suspicion to believe that the occupants of the Subaru were committing, had committed, or were about to commit a crime. Therefore, the suppression order was reversed. View "Colorado v. Wheeler" on Justia Law

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Proponents-respondents Monica Vondruska and Jon Caldara submitted proposed Initiative #293 to the Title Board for the setting of a title and submission clause. Initiative #293 proposed to add section 22 to article X of the Colorado Constitution and to amend certain statutory provisions in Titles 24 and 39 of the Colorado Revised Statutes in order to create a new preschool program. The measure implements the new preschool program, in part, by: (1) redirecting certain state cigarette and tobacco tax revenue away from local governments that ban selling tobacco or nicotine products and to the new preschool program and (2) reallocating a portion of the cigarette and tobacco taxes collected under article X, section 21 of the Colorado Constitution that are currently allocated to several health-related programs (Initiative #315 differed from Initiative #293 to the extent that Initiative #315 also added a ten percent sales tax on tobacco-derived nicotine vapor products). Petitioner Anna Jo Haynes then filed a motion for rehearing, asserting that the title did not satisfy either the single subject or clear title requirement. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the title that the Title Board set for Initiative #293 presented a single subject, namely, the creation and administration of a Colorado preschool program funded by reallocating existing taxes on, and other revenues derived from, tobacco and nicotine products. Furthermore, the Court concluded the title satisfied the clear title requirement because it described Initiative #293’s central features succinctly, accurately, and fairly and in a manner that will not mislead voters. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the Title Board’s actions in setting the title for Initiative #293. View "In re Title, Ballot Title & Submission Clause for 2019 (Initiative 293)" on Justia Law

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Defendant-respondent Sandra Archuleta took care of her four-month-old grandson, D.A., for one week. Several hours after D.A.’s mother picked him up, she returned to Archuleta’s home with D.A. Archuleta noticed that D.A. did not appear to be breathing, so she attempted CPR and called 911. First responders arrived shortly thereafter and transported D.A. to the hospital, but he died the following morning. An autopsy revealed that D.A. had been suffering from dehydration and a bacterial infection that had started as pneumonia and that had spread to his blood. The prosecution subsequently charged Archuleta with one count of “child abuse resulting in death,” alleging that she caused D.A.’s death over the course of the week in which she took care of him. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on when a trial court must give a jury a so-called "modified unanimity instruction." Specifically, the issue reduced to whether defendant was entitled to such an instruction requiring that the jurors either unanimously agree that she committed the same act or acts underlying the child abuse charge or that she committed all of those acts. The Supreme Court found that the prosecution charged and tried this case on the theory that Archuleta had committed the offense at issue by engaging in a single criminal transaction resulting in the child’s death. And because, in light of the prosecution’s theory, the Court found no reasonable likelihood that the jurors disagreed on which specific act caused the child’s death, the Court concluded Archuleta was not entitled to a modified unanimity instruction here. View "Archuleta v. Colorado" on Justia Law