Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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In 2011, Douglas Baker was arrested on a then-outstanding 2009 warrant for sexual assault on a child, pattern of abuse, a class three felony. When Baker learned that he was facing arrest, he fled to Florida. He was extradited to Colorado, and booked into jail where he remained in custody for the duration of the case. Baker pled guilty to one count of sexual assault on a child, position of trust, a class three felony, and, in 2012, he was sentenced to a term of ten years to life in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The court awarded Baker 364 days of credit for time served and designated him a Sexually Violent Predator (“SVP”). At the sentencing hearing, Baker objected to the SVP finding and told the court that he would file a motion objecting to it. Baker, however, failed to file a motion objecting to his SVP status for over three years, and, in the interim, he never filed a direct appeal. The issue his case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether a defendant’s claim that he was entitled to more presentence confinement credit (“PSCC”) than he originally received was properly understood as a challenge to a sentence “not authorized by law” under Crim. P. 35(a). The Court concluded that it was not: "PSCC is not a component of a sentence; instead, it is time served before a sentence is imposed, which is later credited against the defendant’s sentence. This conclusion does not mean that defendants have no avenue to seek correction of an improper calculation of PSCC." Here, all parties agreed that both the parties and the court overlooked Baker’s eighteen missing days of PSCC. Rule 36 would have been the appropriate route to correct the calculation error. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case with directions to return it to the district court. View "Colorado v. Baker" on Justia Law

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Two separate criminal cases gave rise to the questions presented in this case. (1) In October 2013, Michael Fransua was arrested after he unlawfully entered his former girlfriend’s house and assaulted her. Fransua was charged with second-degree burglary, third-degree assault, and harassment; two months later, he posted bond and was released from jail. (2) While out on bond, in March 2014, Fransua was arrested after he again entered his former girlfriend’s house and refused to leave. This time, Fransua was charged with first-degree trespass, violation of bail bond conditions, and violation of a protection order. Although Fransua posted bond in the first case, and thus was released from jail pending trial in that case, he was unable to post bond in the second case. As a result, Fransua was confined from the date he was arrested in the second case, to the date he was sentenced in the first case. During this 108-day period of confinement, however, Fransua’s bond in the first case was never revoked or modified. In exchange for a complete dismissal of the second case, as well as all original charges in the first case, Fransua pled guilty to a single count of attempted second-degree burglary in the first case. He was sentenced to a term of five years in community corrections as part of that plea agreement. Three months later, Fransua escaped from community corrections. Consequently, he was resentenced to a term of five years in the custody of the Department of Corrections. During Fransua’s resentencing hearing, he requested 245 days of PSCC. The district court, however, awarded him only 162 days. His case presented a question of whether he was entitled to presentence confinement credit ("PSCC") for time spent in jail because he was unable to post bond in his second case. Further, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed whether defendant was entitled to credit for both the first and last days of his presentence confinement. The Court concluded Fransua was not entitled to credit in his first case from his confinement in the second case. Fransua was entitled to credit for both the first and last days of his presentence confinement. View "Fransua v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Alysha Walton pled guilty to driving under the influence (“DUI”), and the county court sentenced her to twelve months of unsupervised probation. Because Walton did not provide a medical professional to testify regarding her authorization to use medical marijuana, the court, as a condition of probation, prohibited Walton from using medical marijuana. Walton appealed, and the district court affirmed the county court’s decision. The Colorado Supreme Court held that the plain language of section 18-1.3-204(2)(a)(VIII), C.R.S. (2019) created a presumption that a defendant could use medical marijuana while serving a sentence to probation unless a statutory exception applied. The relevant exception here applied if the sentencing court found, based on material evidence, that prohibiting this defendant’s otherwise-authorized medical marijuana use was necessary and appropriate to promote statutory sentencing goals. Because the county court made no such findings here, the district court's judgment affirming the county court was reversed. Because defendant completed her sentence, reversing and remanding was deemed moot. View "Walton v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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This case was companion to Colorado Medical Board v. McLaughlin, 2019 CO 93, __ P.3d __, wherein the Colorado Supreme Court was asked to determine whether an investigative subpoena issued by the Colorado Medical Board (the “Board”) could have a lawfully authorized purpose if the investigation was prompted by a complaint made by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (the “CDPHE”) pursuant to a policy that violated the Open Meetings Law (the “OML”) or the State Administrative Procedure Act (the “APA”). Petitioner James Boland, M.D. was a physician licensed to practice medicine in Colorado. He primarily examined patients to determine if they would benefit from the use of medical marijuana. Information related to medical marijuana in Colorado is maintained by the CDPHE in a confidential registry that includes the names of all patients who have applied for and are entitled to receive a marijuana registry identification card, as well as the names and contact information for the patients’ physicians and, if applicable, their primary caregivers. In June 2014, the CDPHE referred Boland to the Board for investigation based on his “[h]igh plant count recommendations and high percent of patients under age of 30 [sic] for medical marijuana referrals.” Boland refused to comply with the subpoena, and he and several other physicians whom the CDPHE had referred to the Board and who had received subpoenas from the Board filed suit in the Denver District Court, seeking, among other things, to enjoin the Board from enforcing its subpoenas. The Supreme Court concluded that because neither the CDPHE’s adoption of the Referral Policy nor its referral of Boland to the Board violated the OML or the APA, Boland’s contention that the subpoena to him was void because the Policy and referral were void was based on a flawed premise and was therefore unpersuasive. Even if the adoption of the Referral Policy and the referral itself violated the OML or the APA, however, we still conclude that the Board’s subpoena to Boland had a lawfully authorized purpose because it was issued pursuant to the Board’s statutory authority to investigate allegations of unprofessional conduct and was properly tailored to that purpose. View "Boland v. Colorado Medical Board" on Justia Law

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Brooke Rojas received food stamp benefits to which she was not legally entitled. Colorado charged her with two counts of theft under the general theft statute, section 18-4-401(1)(a), C.R.S. (2019). Rojas moved to dismiss these charges, arguing that she could only be prosecuted under section 26-2-305(1)(a), C.R.S. (2019), because it created the specific crime of theft of food stamps. The trial court denied the motion, and a jury convicted Rojas of the two general theft counts. Rojas contended on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court that the trial court erred by denying the motion to dismiss because section 26-2-305(1)(a) abrogated the general theft statute in food stamp benefit cases. A split division of the court of appeals agreed with her. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with Rojas and the division majority. Based on the statute’s plain language, the Court held that the legislature didn’t create a crime separate from general theft by enacting section 26-2-305(1)(a). View "Colorado v. Rojas" on Justia Law

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In this case and two companion cases announced at the same time, Wells-Yates v. Colorado, 2019 CO 90, and Melton v. Colorado, 2019 CO 89, the Colorado Supreme Court considered issues “that lie at the intersection of habitual criminal punishment and proportionality review.” In July 2013, Clifton McRae sold methamphetamine for $350 to his girlfriend, who was working as a confidential informant. The prosecution later brought six drug-related charges against McRae, only two of which arose from the July 2013 transaction, and six habitual criminal charges. In August 2014, the jury found McRae guilty of selling or distributing a schedule II controlled substance, a class 3 felony, and possessing drug paraphernalia, a petty offense, in connection with the July 2013 transaction. During a subsequent bench trial, the court adjudicated McRae a habitual criminal based on six predicate offenses. Before sentencing, McRae advanced a preemptive proportionality challenge, arguing that the 64-year habitual criminal sentence required by law for the triggering offense of selling or distributing a schedule II controlled substance was grossly disproportionate. Despite finding that the triggering offense and five of the six predicate offenses (the drug-related predicate offenses) were per se grave or serious, the trial court concluded that the required prison sentence of 64 years raised an inference of gross disproportionality and sentenced McRae to 16 years in prison instead. The State appealed. The Supreme Court held that in determining the gravity or seriousness of triggering and predicate offenses during an abbreviated proportionality review, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively. Although the court of appeals reached a similar conclusion, it erred in failing to recognize that, rather than consider relevant prospective legislative amendments enacted after the dates of the triggering and predicate offenses, the trial court actually applied those amendments retroactively. Therefore, its judgment was reversed. And, because additional factual determinations are necessary to properly address the defendant’s proportionality challenge, the case was remanded with instructions to return it to the trial court for a new proportionality review in accordance with Wells-Yates and Melton. View "Colorado v. McRae" on Justia Law

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In this case and two companion cases announced at the same time, Melton v. Colorado, 2019 CO 89, and Colorado v. McRae, 2019 CO 91, the Colorado Supreme Court considered “multiple issues that lie at the intersection of proportionality review and habitual criminal punishment.” In June 2012, an undercover agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, received information from a confidential informant that Belinda May Wells-Yates was stealing identity documents from cars, and arranged a meeting, during which she sold him a birth certificate, a social security card, and a driver’s license. Several days later, the Waldo Canyon fire started. Wells-Yates told the agent that she was “chasing the fire” - stealing property from homes that had been evacuated. The agent scheduled another meeting, during which she sold him additional stolen property. Wells-Yates was arrested; a search revealed a bag containing a small amount of methamphetamine and other drug paraphernalia. The prosecution charged Wells-Yates in 2012 with second degree burglary, conspiracy to commit second degree burglary, theft, possession with intent to sell or distribute 7 grams or less of a schedule II controlled substance, four counts of identity theft, and three habitual criminal counts. In February 2013, a jury found Wells-Yates guilty of all the substantive charges. Following a bench trial in May 2013, the court adjudicated her a habitual criminal based on three predicate offenses. In total, Wells-Yates received an aggregate prison term of 72 years, eligible for parole. The trial court found that the sentence was not unconstitutionally disproportionate, and a division of the court of appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court held that a reviewing court must consider each triggering offense and the predicate offenses together and determine whether, in combination, they are so lacking in gravity or seriousness as to raise an inference that the sentence imposed on that triggering offense is grossly disproportionate. Because the court of appeals’ decision was at odds with the conclusions the Court reached in this opinion, it reversed judgment. The matter was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. View "Wells-Yates v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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In this case and two companion cases announced at the same time, Wells-Yates v. Colorado, 2019 CO 90, and Colorado v. McRae, 2019 CO 91, the Colorado Supreme Court considered issues “that lie at the intersection of habitual criminal punishment and proportionality review.” Seeking to execute multiple outstanding arrest warrants for Johnny Melton in October 2009, three deputies responded to his mother’s home and arrested him. In a search of his person, they recovered a metal tin containing methamphetamine mixed with trace amounts of oxycodone, heroin, and cocaine. Melton asked the deputies to retrieve a cigarette from a leather jacket on a bed. In the jacket, deputies found marijuana, methamphetamine mixed with trace amounts of ecstasy and diazepam, and a hypodermic needle containing a suspected narcotic. The State later charged Melton with six substantive drug offenses and three habitual criminal counts. In October 2010, a jury found Melton guilty of possession of 1 gram or less of each of three schedule I or II controlled substance. At a subsequent bench trial in December 2010, the court adjudicated Melton a habitual criminal based on his prior felony convictions for possession of methamphetamine, theft, and second degree assault. The court then imposed a mandatory 24-year prison sentence on each of the three triggering offenses and ordered that the sentences be served concurrently. Melton challenged his sentences on proportionality grounds, but after an abbreviated proportionality review, the trial court found no inference of gross disproportionality. A split division of the court of appeals affirmed Melton’s convictions and sentences. Consistent with Wells-Yates (the lead case), the Supreme Court held that: (1) possession of schedule I and II controlled substances is not per se grave or serious; and (2) in determining the gravity or seriousness of the triggering and predicate offenses during an abbreviated proportionality review, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively. Because the court of appeals reached different conclusions, its judgment is reversed. And, because additional factual determinations are necessary to properly address the defendant’s proportionality challenge, the case is remanded with instructions to return it to the trial court for a new proportionality review in accordance with Wells-Yates and McRae. View "Melton v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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After a traffic stop of a Cadillac driven by Billie Allen, Greeley Police Department officers conducted an inventory search that yielded a handgun and methamphetamine. In an interlocutory appeal brought by the State of Colorado, the issue presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether the district court erred in granting Allen’s pretrial request to suppress those items. The State argued no constitutional violation occurred when the Cadillac was seized and inventoried because the officers properly exercised their discretion in deciding to impound it. Alternatively, the State contended the officers were authorized to conduct either a protective search for weapons or a search pursuant to the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The Supreme Court surmised whether the officers had probable cause to search the Cadillac, as required by the automobile exception, was a close question, but one it ultimately concluded the district court resolved correctly. And, because the Court also agreed with the district court that neither the protective search exception nor the inventory search exception could justify the challenged search, it affirmed the outcome. View "Colorado v. Allen" on Justia Law

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In early 2013, an undercover officer sold Clayton Schaner a series of ostensibly stolen goods as part of an investigation into whether Schaner was using his computer repair store as a front to buy and resell stolen items on e-commerce websites. At the time, petitioner Caleb Butler was the store’s assistant manager. Investigators discovered that Schaner made near-daily transfers of money to Butler from his e-commerce sites, and Butler then withdrew cash and gave it to Schaner. Schaner and Butler were both arrested. Schaner was charged with a number of offenses, among them money laundering. Butler was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, two counts of money laundering for aiding and abetting Schaner in two specific laundering transactions. On appeal, Butler challenged the sufficiency of the evidence presented against him to support the laundering charges. Finding no reversible error, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed. View "Butler v. Colorado" on Justia Law