Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal 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

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Brooke Rojas received food stamp benefits to which she was not legally entitled. The prosecution 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 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 Colorado Supreme Court, however, disagreed with Rojas and the division majority. Based on the statute’s plain language, the Supreme Court held 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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Julian Deleon was charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child. During his trial, Deleon exercised his Fifth Amendment right against self- incrimination and elected not to testify. At the jury instruction conference prior to closing arguments, Deleon tendered an instruction regarding a defendant’s right to remain silent, which the trial court denied because it did not match the pattern instruction. Instead, the court indicated that it would give that pattern instruction. But at the close of evidence, the trial court never instructed the jury regarding Deleon’s right to remain silent either verbally or in writing. Deleon argued this constituted reversible error. Under the facts of this case, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed and reversed for further proceedings. View "Deleon v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Deputies interrogated Jacob Davis in the basement of his parents’ home about an alleged sexual assault. At that time, Davis made some incriminating statements. He moved to suppress those statements, arguing they were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights. The trial court granted his motion to suppress, finding Davis was subjected to a custodial interrogation without having first been given a Miranda advisement. The State appealed. The Colorado Supreme Court determined Davis was not in custody at the time for the purposes of Miranda, so it reversed the trial court’s suppression order. View "Colorado v. Davis" on Justia Law

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R.B. was knocked cold from behind when trying to enter a locked door to a bar. His belongings were taken. Police identified defendant Johnny Delgado as someone fleeing the scene. Police caught Delgado, who was eventually convicted of both theft from a person and robbery based on a single taking. But theft from a person was the unlawful taking of an item without force, and robbery was the unlawful taking of an item with force. Thus, based on the elements, it appears that Delgado was both convicted and absolved of taking R.B.’s belongings without force. And he was both convicted and absolved of taking R.B.’s belongings with force. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded these verdicts could not be legally or logically reconciled: elements of the two convictions were mutually exclusive. The State argued that as remedy, even if the verdicts were mutually exclusive, the cure was to maximize the convictions by throwing out the lesser theft-from-a-person conviction. Delgado countered that double jeopardy required striking both convictions. The appellate court took a middle ground and concluded that, here, the solution was a new trial. To this, the Supreme Court concurred: “Because such mutually exclusive convictions leave us without a meaningful way to discern the jury’s intent, the proper remedy is a new trial.” View "Colorado v. Delgado" on Justia Law