Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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Respondent James Patton stole two camcorders worth about $1700 total in 2009. At the time, theft for the value of the two camcorders constituted a class 4 felony. But in 2013, the Colorado General Assembly changed the theft statute to make thefts for items valued between $750 and $2000 a class 1 misdemeanor. The amendment to the theft statute did not say whether it applied prospectively or retroactively. Regardless, the trial court denied Patton’s motion arguing that, if convicted, he should be sentenced under the amended statute. A jury convicted Patton in 2014, and the trial court sentenced him for committing a class 4 felony under the pre-2013 theft statute. Patton appealed, arguing he should have received the benefit of a lower sentence under the amended theft statute. The Colorado Supreme Court held that ameliorative, amendatory legislation applied retroactively to non-final convictions under section 18-1-410(1)(f), C.R.S. (2017), unless the amendment contained language indicating it applied only prospectively. So, the division properly concluded that the theft amendment applied retroactively to cases involving convictions that were not final on the effective date of the amendment, and thus, Patton should have been sentenced for committing a class 1 misdemeanor. View "Colorado v. Patton" on Justia Law

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Respondent John Stellabotte owned a towing company that he used to illegally tow cars and then demand payment from the owners. At the time he did this, his thefts constituted a class 4 felony. But before he had been convicted and sentenced, the General Assembly changed the theft statute to make the crime a class 5 felony, with a correspondingly lower sentence. The amendment to the theft statute did not say whether it applied prospectively or retroactively. Without any party bringing this statutory change to the trial court’s attention, it sentenced Stellabotte, as relevant here, for two class 4 felony counts under the old theft statute. Stellabotte appealed, arguing he should have been sentenced for two class 5 felonies under the amended statute. The Colorado Supreme Court held that ameliorative, amendatory legislation applied retroactively to non-final convictions under section 18-1-410(1)(f), C.R.S. (2017), unless the amendment contained language indicating it applied only prospectively. Because the 2013 amendment to the theft statute in this case is silent on whether it applies prospectively, Stellabotte should have received the benefit of retroactive application in his sentencing. View "Colorado v. Stellabotte" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Andres Castillo admitted he fired a shotgun at several people, including two police officers, in a crowded parking lot after a night out celebrating his wife’s birthday in downtown Denver. But he claimed he acted in self-defense. Driving a car occupied by his wife and several friends, Castillo tried to exit a parking lot, when an unknown assailant opened fire on his car. At some point during this episode, Castillo got out of the car, retrieved a shotgun from his trunk, and returned fire. Nearby police officers then rushed to the scene and began firing at Castillo from a different direction. He turned and shot back. Castillo testified that he didn’t realize his targets were police officers; he claimed that he thought they were associated with the initial shooter. Castillo asserted self-defense at trial. The trial court instructed the jury on self-defense but, over Castillo’s objection, also instructed the jury on two exceptions to self-defense: initial aggressor and provocation. The jury found Castillo guilty of several offenses. A division of the court of appeals found that: (1) the trial court did not err in giving the initial aggressor jury instruction; and (2) while the trial court did err in giving the provocation jury instruction, the error was harmless. After review, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred in giving the initial aggressor jury instruction because there was no evidence to support the instruction, and that error was not harmless. Castillo was entitled to a new trial; the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded for further proceedings. View "Castillo v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the trial court abused its discretion in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a new trial after a jury found that the defendants, two pilots, were not negligent during a near collision that resulted in one plane crashing and killing all five passengers on board. To resolve this issue, the Colorado Supreme Court addressed two underlying questions: (1) whether the trial court’s stated reasons for granting a new trial met the requirements of C.R.C.P. 59(d); and (2) if not, whether a trial court may nevertheless grant a new trial for a reason other than those enumerated in Rule 59(d). The Supreme Court answered both questions in the negative and accordingly held that the trial court abused its discretion in granting a new trial. View "In re Rains" on Justia Law

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In 2008, James Stackhouse was charged with one count of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust, a class-three felony, one count of sexual assault on a child, a class-four felony, and the sentence enhancer of sexual assault on a child as a pattern of abuse, which elevated the class-four felony of sexual assault on a child to a class-three felony. In 2010, Stackhouse proceeded to trial on these charges. A jury found Stackhouse guilty of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust and of sexual assault on a child. The jury did not find the pattern-of-abuse sentence enhancer. At issue before the Colorado Supreme Court in this case was the district court's order permitting the State to retry Stackhouse on only one of the many alleged acts of sexual assault on a child for chich he had been charged. The district court concluded that the jury in Stackhouse’s first trial had necessarily concluded that he did not commit multiple acts of assault, and therefore that he could not be retried for more than a single assault. Concluding that the jury lacked unanimity as to the commission of two or more types of abuse did not require (or even permit) a conclusion that the jury necessarily and unanimously agreed that Stackhouse did not engage in multiple acts of abuse of a single type. The Supreme Court concluded the district court abused its discretion when it found otherwise. Therefore, in this case double jeopardy did not require the State to elect the January 2007 allegation as the sole basis for Stackhouse’s retrial. View "Colorado v. Stackhouse" on Justia Law

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Defendant Sir Mario Owens was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2008. In 2017, the trial court denied defendant's motion for post-conviction relief pursuant to Crim. P. 32.2, as well as his related motion to disqualify the District Attorney’s Office for the 18th Judicial District and to appoint a special prosecutor. The basis for the motion to disqualify was an allegation that the District Attorney had failed to disclose evidence that would have been favorable to defendant's defense. Over defendant's objection, the trial court issued a protective order, sealing portions of the post-conviction motions practice. In 2017, petitioner The Colorado Independent filed a motion with the district court, asking the court to unseal the records, arguing that public access to the records was required by the First Amendment, Article II, section 10 of the Colorado Constitution, common law, and the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act. The district court denied that motion, and Petitioner filed for relief under C.A.R. 21, limiting its request for relief to the argument that presumptive access to judicial records is a constitutional guarantee. The Colorado Supreme Court found that while presumptive access to judicial proceedings is a right recognized under both the state and federal constitutions, neither the United States Supreme Court nor the Colorado Supreme Court has ever held that records filed with a court are treated the same way. The Court declined to conclude here that such unfettered access to criminal justice records was guaranteed by either the First Amendment or Article II, section 10 of the Colorado Constitution. The Court therefore affirmed the denial to unseal the records at issue here. View "In re Colorado v. Sir Mario Owens" on Justia Law

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After pulling over Kimberlie Verigan’s car during a traffic stop, police noticed potential contraband in the car. Police then searched the car and without providing Miranda warnings. After Verigan admitted to possessing methamphetamines, the police arrested her and brought her to a police station, where she received Miranda warnings, waived her rights, and again confessed to possessing methamphetamines. Verigan ultimately moved to suppress her statements, asserting, as pertinent here, that the police had obtained her second confession through the use of the type of two-stage interrogation technique that a majority of the Supreme Court had ruled impermissible in Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600 (2004). The trial court denied Verigan’s motion, and Verigan was subsequently convicted. She then appealed, and a division of the court of appeals affirmed, reasoning that because Seibert was a fractured opinion with no agreement by a majority on the principles of law to be applied, Seibert did not announce a precedential rule. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the outcome of the appellate court's judgment, joining, however, "the vast majority of courts that have addressed the issue now before us and conclude that Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Seibert, which enunciated the 'narrowest grounds' on which the members of the majority concurred, is the controlling precedent to be applied." Applying Justice Kennedy’s test here, the Colorado Court concluded the officers in this case did not engage in a two-step interrogation in a deliberate attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the Miranda warnings provided to Verigan. Accordingly, because Verigan’s pre- and post-warning statements were indisputably voluntary, the division correctly determined that Verigan’s post-warning statements were admissible. View "Verigan v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Ilyias Austin petitioned for relief after a district court denied his motion for a preliminary hearing. The Colorado Supreme Court determined Austin was charged by information with a class 4 felony committed as a “crime of violence” as defined at section 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(B) and (II)(C) of the revised statutes, and as such, he was statutorily entitled to a preliminary hearing. The Supreme Court remanded this case to the district court for further proceedings. View "In re Colorado v. Austin" on Justia Law

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This case presented the Colorado Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify whether the voluntariness of consent to a search in Colorado had to be proven by “clear and convincing evidence” or by “a preponderance of the evidence.” Thomas Delage was stopped by police when they spotted him and a companion at 3 a.m. in an alleyway that had been the scene of recent thefts from cars. Both men were carrying backpacks and flashlights and they were standing next to several parked cars. During the interaction between Delage and the officers, police searched Delage’s backpack and found methamphetamines. At a hearing about the admissibility of the drugs, Delage and the officers involved gave differing accounts of the details and duration of the stop. Applying a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, the trial court found that “it is probably more likely true than not there was consent under the circumstances given.” On that basis, the trial court denied Delage’s motion to suppress the methamphetamines. The court of appeals agreed Delage had given consent, but the panel noted that the court had not considered whether Delage’s consent was voluntary. Because consent must be voluntary to be valid, the court of appeals vacated Delage’s conviction and remanded, instructing the trial court to consider whether the State had proven by “clear and convincing evidence” that Delage’s consent was voluntary. The State petitioned for certiorari, asking for clarification on the proper standard for the trial court to determine voluntariness. "Under federal law, the answer is clear, as the United States Supreme Court explained more than forty years ago that voluntariness need only be shown by a preponderance of the evidence." The Colorado Supreme Court held that in Colorado courts the same standard applied and that the State must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a search was consented to voluntarily in order to overcome a motion to suppress evidence obtained in that search. View "Colorado v. Delage" on Justia Law

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Appellee David Ehrnstein was convicted by jury of incest against L.E. He filed a motion for a new trial, alleging that one of his trial prosecutors and the victim advocate in his case had instructed L.E. to avoid a defense subpoena. Prior to holding a hearing on that motion, the trial court found that it was compelled by the rules of professional conduct to appoint a special prosecutor for purposes of the hearing. Pursuant to sections 16-12-102(2) and 20-1-107(3), C.R.S. (2017), the district attorney filed an interlocutory appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court, which was faced with deciding whether the trial court abused its discretion in appointing the special prosecutor. The Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion because it misapplied the law when it concluded that Colo. RPC 3.7 required the appointment of a special prosecutor for purposes of the hearing on the new trial motion in this case. View "Colorado v. Ehrnstein" on Justia Law