Justia Colorado Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Colorado State Patrol Trooper Christian Bollen, acting on a hunch, initiated a traffic stop on what ended up being a rental car. The vehicle had out of state plates, and because it was a rental, the trooper though the car might be involved in the transportation of illegal narcotics. The driver informed him that she and her passengers were traveling from California to Maryland, but the trooper did not believe that story. Asking the passengers, their respective stories did not match the driver’s. A drug detection dog made no alert on a sniff of the vehicle. Acting on a hunch, the trooper searched the vehicle to find a kilogram of cocaine in the glove box and some fentanyl in a prescription bottle. In this interlocutory appeal brought by the prosecution, the parties agreed that Trooper Bollen performed a lawful traffic stop. The question before the Colorado Supreme Court was whether the district court erred in granting the defendant’s motion to suppress on the ground that Trooper Bollen lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. “Because probable cause to search was measured against an objective standard of reasonableness and cannot be established by piling hunch upon hunch or by ignoring facts that militate against it,” the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on the method of calculation employed by the Colorado Department of Corrections (“DOC”) to determine the parole eligibility date for Nathanael Owens, who was serving three consecutive prison sentences. There was no dispute that Colorado law required that Owens’s sentences be treated as a single continuous sentence for purposes of calculating his parole eligibility date. What complicated matters was that one of Owens’s sentences was subject to a statutory provision that rendered him parole eligible after serving 50% of the sentence, while the other two sentences are subject to a statutory provision that rendered him parole eligible after serving 75% of those sentences. The DOC applied the 75% rule to all three of Owens’s consecutive sentences, reasoning that two of them were subject to that rule. But, in so doing, it applied the 75% rule to the sentence that was subject to the 50% rule. A division of the court of appeals nevertheless approved this methodology. Because the division erroneously approved the non-hybrid methodology used by the DOC to calculate Owens’s parole eligibility date, the Supreme Court reversed. However, because the DOC has since recalculated Owens’s parole eligibility date, and because the new calculation was consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion, no further action was required. Accordingly, the Court remanded this case with instructions to simply return the case to the district court. View "Owens v. Carlson" on Justia Law

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While in police custody, during a pause in an interrogation, Isaiah Trujillo-Tucson waited in an interview room with a non-interrogating officer while the interrogating officer was off getting Trujillo-Tucson a soda. The non-interrogating officer was patting Trujillo-Tucson down without pressing for information while Trujillo-Tucson repeatedly initiated mostly casual conversation. Shortly thereafter, Trujillo-Tucson asked, “Am I able to get a phone call? . . . To my lawyer, [E.K.]?” The officer spoke over Trujillo-Tucson during the latter portion of his question to say, “Yeah.” After a brief silence, casual conversation continued. When the interrogating officer joined the two men in the room to continue questioning, Trujillo-Tucson made incriminating statements. After the State charged Trujillo-Tucson with various offenses, Trujillo-Tucson moved to suppress his statements, arguing that questioning should have ceased because he had invoked his right to counsel. The trial court agreed. The State filed an interlocutory appeal of the trial court’s suppression order arguing that Trujillo-Tucson’s question, posed to the non-interrogating officer, was not an unambiguous and unequivocal invocation of his right to counsel. Based on its independent review of the video- and audio-recorded interrogation, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded Trujillo-Tucson’s question about a phone call to an attorney did not constitute an unambiguous and unequivocal request for counsel during the interrogation. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s suppression order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Trujillo-Tucson" on Justia Law

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One night, while surveilling an area near a hotel for illegal drug trafficking, a sheriff’s deputy in an unmarked patrol car watched a Lincoln Town Car with two occupants pull into the hotel’s parking lot, park for less than ten minutes without anyone exiting the vehicle, and drive away. As she followed the Lincoln, a second deputy noticed that the car’s tail lamps were broken and that someone had tried to fix them with red tape but that the tape had melted, allowing the bulbs to emit “some white light.” The second deputy also observed the driver of the Lincoln commit what she perceived to be a second traffic infraction, namely, failing to use a turn signal when exiting a roundabout. At that point, the second deputy relayed to a third deputy, what she had seen and asked the third deputy to execute a traffic stop. Petitioner Timothy McBride was identified as the Lincoln's driver, and police found he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Incident to the arrest, a search of the car netted a baggie containing methamphetamine and a handgun. McBride was charged on weapons and drug possession charges; he moved to suppress all evidence, arguing among other things, that the stop was unlawful because the deputies did not have a reasonable suspicion that McBride had committed any traffic offenses. Specifically, as pertinent here, McBride asserted that section 42-4-206(1) required that a vehicle’s tail lamps emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear. He argued that even if the deputies observed a white light, it was inconceivable that they did not also observe a red light, and “there is no statutory prohibition to any white light so long as the red light is visible.” The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the statute was plain and unambiguous: there is liability under that section when a motor vehicle’s tail lamps do not “emit[] a red light plainly visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear.” Nothing in that section mandated that a vehicle’s tail lamps must “shine only red light.” And because the prosecution did not present substantial and sufficient evidence that would have allowed a reasonable jury to find that the tail lamps of the car that McBride was driving failed to emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of five hundred feet to the rear, the Supreme Court concluded the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for a tail lamp violation. View "McBride v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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An eyewitness saw an SUV crash and a woman exit the driver’s-side door and immediately flee from the vehicle. Inside the SUV, police officers found several items that belonged to Yolanda Vialpando. The police began investigating Vialpando, and the eyewitness identified her as the suspect with 75% certainty. The prosecution charged Vialpando with various crimes connected to the incident, and ultimately, a jury convicted Vialpando as charged. She appealed, contending, as relevant here, that the prosecutor’s statements in closing argument about flight were an improper comment on her exercising her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial and that the cumulative impact of numerous errors deprived her of a fair trial. A split division of the court of appeals agreed and reversed her conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the prosecutor's comments, made during closing argument, were not error. Further, the Court concluded there was no cumulative error. The court of appeals was reversed and the case remanded for further consideration of the remaining issues. View "Colorado v. Vialpando" on Justia Law

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Defendant Christopher Magana started a fire that engulfed two cars and a duplex. A jury found defendant guilty of eighteen counts of arson, including two counts of first degree arson, each of which the prosecution had charged as a crime of violence (“COV”) based on Magana’s use of “fire and accelerant” as a deadly weapon. The jury also found that both counts of first degree arson involved the use of a deadly weapon. But at sentencing, the trial court surmised that the jury had reached its sentence-enhancement finding based on fire alone, and refused to sentence Magana under the COV statute. A division of the court of appeals affirmed the convictions, but it concluded that the trial court should have imposed the COV enhancer. On appeal, Magana argued: (1) his eighteen convictions are multiplicitous, and that the controlling unit of prosecution for all forms of arson was the act of starting a fire or causing an explosion—rather than the number of buildings torched, property burned, or people endangered—and, therefore, he should have been convicted on just three counts (one count for each of the categories of harm); and (2) the Colorado General Assembly didn’t intend fire to serve as both a constituent element of first degree arson and a basis for COV sentence enhancement. The Colorado Supreme Court held: (1) the unit of prosecution under the first-, second-, and fourth- degree-arson statutes was, respectively, each building or occupied structure damaged or destroyed, each person’s property (other than a building or occupied structure) damaged or destroyed, and each person endangered; and (2) fire alone was not a deadly weapon for the purpose of prosecuting first degree arson as a COV. View "Magana v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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In September 2016, a Best Buy employee found defendant Palmer Gilbert sitting in another employee’s vehicle in the store’s parking lot. When the employee confronted him, Gilbert got out of the car and began swinging a knife at the employee. Gilbert fled on foot, then attempted to carjack multiple people at knifepoint. On his third attempt, Gilbert stole a vehicle and, shortly thereafter, ran a red light and caused a collision. Gilbert fled the scene of the accident on foot, stole a truck from a nearby restaurant, and drove away. The stolen truck was later discovered in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where police took Gilbert into custody. In connection with these events, the State of Colorado charged Gilbert with ten counts, including aggravated robbery, second degree assault, first degree aggravated motor vehicle theft, second degree criminal trespass, careless driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. Gilbert posted bond and was released in December 2016. He immediately absconded but was apprehended and arraigned approximately one year later, on December 7, 2017. The issues this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court was : (1) whether defense counsel established good cause under section 16-8-107(3)(b), C.R.S. (2021), for providing untimely notice of intent to introduce evidence of the defendant’s mental condition; and (2) whether the court of appeals erred in remanding this case for further findings under Colorado v. Brown, 322 P.3d 214 (2014). The Supreme Court found the trial court erred in requiring defendant establish good cause before discharging his retained counsel, and the trial court abused its discretion in denying defendant’s motion for a continuance, thereby violating his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice. The appeals court was affirmed in part, vacated in part, and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Gilbert" on Justia Law

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In January 2021, the Northern Colorado Drug Task Force (“NCDTF”) received an anonymous tip that claimed two residents of a home in Berthoud were dealing a variety of drugs, including methamphetamine. Marcelo Moreno left the house, driving to a truck stop. A patrol car followed Moreno into the truck stop parking lot and parked in a far corner where the officer could observe Moreno from a distance. Moreno and a woman went into the truck stop, returned to sit in the vehicle for a short time, and then drove to another part of the parking area. At no point did they pump gas. A short while later, another surveilling officer, still back at the residence, witnessed a husband and wife leave the house in their SUV. The officer followed the couple to the truck stop where Moreno was waiting. The couple pulled in next to Moreno, who exited his own truck carrying a black backpack and got into the backseat of the couple’s SUV, and the three drove off together. The second officer in the patrol car then stopped the SUV on suspicion of drug trafficking activity. In this interlocutory appeal of a suppression order, the issue presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether the trial court erred when it found that the police lacked reasonable articulable suspicion to support an investigatory stop. The Court held that under the totality of the circumstances, the officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop. The Court therefore reversed the trial court’s order suppressing evidence obtained from the search and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Moreno" on Justia Law

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In November 2017, Saul Cisneros was charged with two misdemeanor offenses and jailed. The court set Cisneros’s bond at $2,000, and Cisneros’s daughter posted that bond four days later, but the County Sheriff’s Office did not release him. Instead, pursuant to Sheriff Bill Elder’s policies and practices, the Sheriff’s Office notified U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) that the jail had been asked to release Cisneros on bond. ICE then sent the jail a detainer and administrative warrant, requesting that the jail continue to detain Cisneros because ICE suspected that he was removable from the United States. Cisneros was placed on an indefinite “ICE hold,” and remained in detention. During his detention, Cisneros, along with another pretrial detainee, initiated a class action in state court against Sheriff Elder, in his official capacity, for declaratory, injunctive, and mandamus relief. The Colorado Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether the appellate court erred in concluding that section 24-10-106(1.5)(b), C.R.S. (2021), of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (“CGIA”) did not waive sovereign immunity for intentional torts that result from the operation of a jail for claimants who were incarcerated but not convicted. The Supreme Court concluded section 24-10-106(1.5)(b) waived immunity for such intentional torts. "In reaching this determination, we conclude that the statutory language waiving immunity for 'claimants who are incarcerated but not yet convicted' and who 'can show injury due to negligence' sets a floor, not a ceiling. To hold otherwise would mean that a pre-conviction claimant could recover for injuries resulting from the negligent operation of a jail but not for injuries resulting from the intentionally tortious operation of the same jail, an absurd result that we cannot countenance." Accordingly, the judgment of the division below was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. View "Cisneros v. Elder" on Justia Law

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The State asked the Colorado Supreme Court to reverse the trial court’s suppression order and remand the case to allow them to make additional arguments supporting the warrantless seizure of defendant-appellee Joe Ramos’s cell phone on the theory that they did not have specific notice that the seizure of the phone was at issue. After review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court found no reversible error in the trial court's suppression order and affirmed. View "Colorado v. Ramos" on Justia Law