August 18, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Cumulative Effect of Numerous Errors Required Reversal

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Stewart on Thursday, July 27, 2017.

Felony Menacing—Obstructing a Peace Officer—Witness—CRE 611—CRE 612—CRE 404(b)—Jury Instruction—Request for Continuance—Cumulative Effect of Errors—Prejudice.

Inebriated, defendant took a cab from a friend’s house and refused to pay his $4.85 cab fare. Defendant jumped from the cab and, chased by the cab driver and a nearby police officer, ran to his apartment, which was surrounded by a six-foot privacy fence that enclosed defendant’s private patio and was secured by a locked gate. At least one officer scaled the fence and opened the gate for remaining officers to enter. After officers breached the fence, they saw defendant behind his window blinds with a plastic BB gun, which they believed to be real. Officers opened fire and defendant suffered two gunshot wounds. A jury convicted defendant of felony menacing and obstructing a peace officer.

On appeal, defendant raised evidentiary errors. The court of appeals determined that the trial court erred by allowing the prosecution to improperly lead a witness, in violation of CRE 611(c). The court’s failure to follow the appropriate procedure to refresh recollection also violated CRE 612. This error was prejudicial, but harmless in isolation. The trial court further erred by allowing the prosecution to present evidence that defendant previously hid from the police, in violation of CRE 404(b). This evidence was irrelevant to any issue at trial other than the habit and character of defendant; it prejudiced defendant and affected the fairness of the proceedings.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury concerning exigent circumstances. The court was unable to determine the relevance of the instruction, and it appeared that the instruction was not an accurate or complete statement of the law. This error alone did not require reversal, but it contributed to the cumulative effect of the other errors.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a continuance to subpoena the cab driver. Refusing the continuance prejudiced defendant by denying him a key witness, affecting the fairness of the trial proceedings.

Considered in isolation, each of the errors might be viewed as harmless, but in the context of a single trial, the cumulative effect of the errors requires reversal of defendant’s conviction.

The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

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