June 24, 2017

Colorado Court of Appeals: Multiple Errors from Prosecutorial Overreach Did Not Influence Outcome of Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Howard-Walker on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Batson Challenges—Peremptory Strikes—Jurors—Testimony—Expert Opinion—Lay Witness—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Jury Instructions—Cumulative Error Doctrine.

Defendant was charged with first degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first degree burglary. Among other evidence presented, his girlfriend and Detective Garcia testified at his trial. He was convicted as charged and sentenced.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred when it denied his challenges, under Batson v. Kentucky, to the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes excusing three prospective jurors—one who identified himself as African-American and two who identified themselves as Hispanic—asserting that the prosecutor’s “race-neutral” reasons for removing the jurors were not worthy of belief. One challenged juror was disinterested, the second juror had a negative experience with law enforcement and a belief that police officers sometimes misidentify suspects, and the third juror had previously faced criminal charges from the same district attorney’s office and had a negative view of law enforcement. Therefore, the trial court’s Batson findings are supported by the record.

Defendant next argued that the admission of several portions of Garcia’s testimony constituted reversible error: (1) Garcia was not admitted as an expert witness, but gave opinions regarding whether the gun depicted in the video surveillance was real. Although this was improper, it did not constitute plain error. (2) Garcia testified about the manner in which the gun was being used. Any error in admitting this testimony was harmless. (3) It was not error for Garcia to identify defendant. No specialized knowledge is necessary to recognize an individual in a video and this evidence was probative of a material fact. (4) Garcia testified regarding probable cause, which was not relevant; however, this was not plain error. (5) Garcia testified but had no personal information about the reasons why defendant’s girlfriend was crying during the police interview. This testimony was not obviously improper and did not undermine the fairness of the trial. (6) Garcia opined about defendant’s statement regarding another perpetrator. Even if this was improper, it did not undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial. (7) Garcia opined about the truthfulness of defendant’s statements to police. Though this testimony was improper, it does not rise to the level of plain error because there was other sufficient evidence to support his conviction.

Defendant next asserted that the prosecutor engaged in reversible misconduct. Although the prosecutor stepped over the line when he repeatedly suggested that the girlfriend was committing perjury, the prosecutor did not threaten or coerce her, and any misconduct was not reversible. The prosecutor also commented on the girlfriend’s truthfulness. The evidence supported a reasonable inference that her testimony was false, and thus these comments were proper. Finally, although the court did not condone the prosecutor’s comment on defendant’s decision not to testify, the comment did not amount to plain error.

Defendant further argued that the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury on the predicate crime of theft and when it failed to define the word “intent.” While the jury instructions were deficient, (1) the record demonstrates that the specification of the underlying crime was not a controverted element of the burglary offense; therefore, the court’s failure to instruct the jury on theft was not plain error, and (2) under the circumstances of this case, the court’s failure to define the culpable mental state similarly did not constitute plain error.

Finally, defendant argued that the cumulative effect of the trial court’s errors and prosecutorial misconduct violated his right to a fair trial. The errors were relatively small events occurring over a two-day trial during which substantial evidence was presented. Defendant received a fair trial in spite of the identified errors.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Attempts to Tamper with Witness Need Not Actually be Communicated to Victim

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Brooks on Thursday, June 15, 2017.

Assault—Witness Tampering—Evidence—Attempt—Judicial Notice—Plea of Guilty—Grossly Disproportionate.

Brooks discovered that his girlfriend (the victim) was pregnant with another man’s child, and then argued with and assaulted her. While in jail, Brooks repeatedly telephoned the victim and others in an attempt to persuade them either to not testify against him on the domestic violence charge or to give false testimony. He also wrote letters to the victim to persuade her either to not testify or to testify falsely on his behalf. These letters were intercepted by a jail officer, and as a result, the victim did not receive them. Brooks was convicted of two counts of assault in the third degree against the victim, two counts of assault in the second degree against a peace officer, resisting arrest, violation of a protective order, and two counts of tampering with a witness or victim. The second tampering count was based on the letters. The court adjudicated Brooks a habitual criminal and imposed a mandatory 24-year sentence. Brooks requested and received an abbreviated proportionality review of the mandatory sentence. After that hearing the district court concluded that Brooks’s sentence was not disproportionate and denied him an extended proportionality review.

On appeal, Brooks argued that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of the second count of tampering with a witness or victim based on the letters because the victim never received them. The tampering with a witness or victim statute does not require that the “attempt” to tamper actually be communicated to the victim or witness. Therefore, the evidence was sufficient to convict Brooks on this charge.

Brooks also argued that the district court abused its discretion in taking judicial notice of the complete case files of his prior felony convictions and that without such improper judicial notice, there was insufficient evidence to support the habitual criminal adjudication. The registers of actions relevant to this case showed that Brooks’s two prior felony convictions were for distinct criminal offenses that occurred months apart. Thus, sufficient evidence supported his habitual criminal conviction.

Brooks further argued that his plea of guilty to felony theft from a person was constitutionally invalid and thus could not support his habitual criminal conviction. Brooks’s plea to theft was constitutionally valid because he entered it voluntarily and knowingly. The district court did not err in finding that it was a valid prior felony conviction under the habitual criminal statute.

Finally, Brooks argued that the district court erred in concluding that his sentence was not grossly disproportionate to his crimes and in not granting him an extended proportionality review. Tampering with a witness or victim is not a per se “grave or serious” offense. However, the facts underlying these crimes were grave or serious. The prosecution identified at least 250 phone conversations in which Brooks attempted to tamper with a witness or victim. Brooks continued tampering with the victim after the prosecution charged him with the first count of tampering and his phone privileges were discontinued. His conduct demonstrated a blatant disregard for the law and thus constituted a grave or serious offense. The Court of Appeals considered all of the convictions and the underlying circumstances as a whole and concluded that Brooks’s mandatory sentence was not grossly disproportionate.

The judgment and sentence were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Self-Defense is Not Affirmative Defense to All Crimes Requiring Intent, Knowledge, or Willfulness

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Roberts v. People on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Affirmative Defenses—Traverses—Self-Defense—Harassment.

In this case, the supreme court reviewed the district court’s order affirming petitioner’s county court conviction for harassment. Petitioner asserted that pursuant to People v. Pickering, 276 P.3d 553 (Colo. 2011), self-defense is an affirmative defense to all crimes requiring intent, knowledge, or willfulness. She thus contended that (1) she was entitled to a self-defense affirmative defense instruction to the specific intent crime of harassment, and (2) the county court’s refusal to give such an instruction constituted reversible error. Because Pickering does not establish the broad, bright-line rule that petitioner asserts and thus does not require a trial court to give a self-defense affirmative defense instruction in every case requiring intent, knowledge, or willfulness, the court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Public Utilities Commission Properly Imposed Tariff After Billing Error

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Carestream Health, Inc. v. Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Public Utilities—Tariffs—Standing—Injury-in-Fact.

In this appeal, the supreme court considered two issues from the district court’s review of a decision of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. Both issues pertain to a billing error that led Public Service Company of Colorado to undercharge Carestream Health, Inc. for gas it received over the course of a three-year period. The first issue is whether the Commission properly interpreted Public Service’s tariff, specifically the requirement to “exercise all reasonable means” to prevent billing errors. The court concluded that determining what means are “reasonable,” as that term is used in the tariff, necessarily requires considering what errors are foreseeable. The court therefore held that the Commission properly interpreted the tariff and acted pursuant to its authority. The second issue is whether Carestream had standing to challenge Public Service’s use of its tariff to recover a portion of the undercharge from its general customer base. Because Carestream suffered no injury from that action, it lacks standing to challenge it. The court accordingly affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Manufacturing Marijuana Prohibited for Individuals Under Amendment 64

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Lente on Monday, June 19, 2017.

State Constitutional Law—Personal Use of Marijuana.

The supreme court held that the prohibition on processing or manufacturing  marijuana or marijuana concentrate under C.R.S. § 18-18-406(2)(a)(I) is not unconstitutional as applied to Austin Lente, who used butane to extract hash oil from marijuana. Although “processing . . . marijuana plants” is a protected personal activity under Colorado’s Amendment 64, “manufacturing . . . marijuana” is protected only as a facility-operation activity that requires a license. At the time Amendment 64 was  approved, Colorado law established that extracting hash oil was manufacturing, not processing, and the supreme court assumes Amendment 64 adopted that settled meaning. Because Lente was unlicensed, he could not manufacture hash oil under cover of the constitution. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s order that ruled the statute is unconstitutional as applied to Lente.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Petitioners Failed to Satisfy Burden to De-Designate Groundwater Basin

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Gallegos Family Properties, LLC v. Colorado Groundwater Commission on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Water Law—Designated Groundwater Basins—Costs.

The supreme court concluded that the designated groundwater court properly concluded that petitioners failed to satisfy their statutory burden in seeking to de-designate a portion of a designated groundwater basin, and therefore, properly denied the petition to de-designate a portion of the basin. The court also concluded that the designated groundwater court properly awarded respondents a portion of their litigation costs as prevailing parties under C.R.C.P. 54(d). The court affirmed the designated groundwater court in both cases.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: County Assessor Authorized to Retroactively Assess Property Taxes on Oil and Gas Leaseholds

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Kinder Morgan CO2 Co., L.P. v. Montezuma County Board of Commissioners on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Oil and Gas—Property Taxation—Statutory Construction.

The supreme court reviewed the court of appeals’ conclusion that the Montezuma County Assessor had statutory authority to retroactively assess property taxes on oil and gas leaseholds operated by Kinder Morgan, after the assessor determined that Kinder Morgan had underreported the wellhead selling price of CO2 gas produced at the leaseholds. The court considered whether this assessment was authorized under the statute permitting retroactive property tax assessments when, pursuant to C.R.S. § 39-5-125(1), “taxable property has been omitted from the assessment roll.” Given Colorado’s self-reporting scheme for property taxation of oil and gas leaseholds and the legislature’s amendments to that scheme—which describe the “underreporting of the selling price or the quantity of oil and gas sold [from a leasehold]” as a form of omitted property, C.R.S. §§ 29-1-301(1) and 39-10-107(1)—the court concluded that the assessor had statutory authority to issue the assessment in this case. The court further concluded that the Board of Assessment Appeals did not err in determining that Kinder Morgan had underreported the wellhead selling price of CO2. The court therefore affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Nontestimonial Hearsay Statements do Not Implicate Defendant’s Right to Confrontation

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Nicholls v. People on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Criminal Trials—Right of Accused to Confront Witnesses—Exceptions to Hearsay Rule—Statements Against Interest.

In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813 (2006), the Colorado Supreme Court held that nontestimonial hearsay statements do not implicate a defendant’s state constitutional right to confrontation, overruling Compan v. People, 121 P.3d 876 (Colo. 2005), which held otherwise. Because the hearsay statements at issue in this case were nontestimonial, they did not implicate Colorado’s Confrontation Clause, and the court of appeals did not err in concluding that defendant’s confrontation right was not violated. The court further held that the third requirement for the admission of inculpatory hearsay statements against interest, announced in People v. Newton, 966 P.2d 563, 576 (Colo. 1998) (requiring corroborating circumstances to demonstrate the statement’s trustworthiness), is not constitutionally required for nontestimonial statements against interest. To admit a third party’s nontestimonial statements against interest under the version of CRE 804(b)(3) that existed at the time of defendant’s 2008 trial, only two conditions needed to be satisfied: (1) the witness must have been unavailable, and (2) the statement must have tended to subject the declarant to criminal liability. The court concluded that the third party’s nontestimonial statements against interest satisfied these two requirements, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting these statements as a statement against interest under CRE 804(b)(3), as that rule existed at the time of defendant’s trial. Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting testimony about defendant’s response to the death of her second child because the testimony was relevant and not unduly prejudicial; nor did the trial court plainly err in admitting testimony about the cause of the second child’s death because the brief, isolated statements did not so undermine the trial’s fairness as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of defendant’s conviction. Accordingly, the court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: No Reasonable Probability that Failure to Instruct Jury on Recklessness Contributed to Conviction

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Roman on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Jury Instructions—Lesser Included Offenses—Harmless Error.

The People sought review of the court of appeals’ judgment reversing Roman’s conviction for first degree assault. The trial court instructed the jury on the lesser included offense of second degree assault committed by intentionally causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon, but it denied Roman’s request for an additional lesser-included-offense instruction on second degree assault committed by recklessly causing serious bodily injury with a deadly weapon. The court of appeals reversed, concluding both that the trial court erred in denying Roman’s requested additional lesser-included-offense instruction and that the error was not harmless.

The supreme court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals. In light of the evidence presented at trial and the instructions actually provided to the jury, there was no reasonable possibility that the failure to instruct on reckless second degree assault contributed to defendant’s conviction of first degree assault. Any error in that regard would therefore have been harmless.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Unfettered Access to Crime Scene Video Allowed Because it Does Not Present Great Risk of Undue Influence

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rael v. People on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Electronic Exhibits—Crime Scene Videos—Statements by the Defendant—Jury Deliberations.

This case required the supreme court to decide whether it was reversible error for a trial court in a criminal case to provide the deliberating jury with “unfettered and unsupervised access” to a crime scene video and a video of a police interview of the defendant. A division of the court of appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in either regard. In reaching this conclusion, the division relied on DeBella v. People, 233 P.3d 664, 665–66 (Colo. 2010), in which the court considered the propriety of a trial court’s order allowing the jury unfettered access to the videotapes of a child sexual assault victim’s out-of-court interviews. Although the supreme court agreed that the trial court retains discretion regarding juror access to the videos at issue, the court disagreed with the division that DeBella provides the appropriate framework for resolving this case.

The court nevertheless concluded that the division reached the correct result, namely, that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the jury unfettered access to those videos during deliberations. In arriving at this conclusion, the court observed that the non-testimonial crime scene video did not present the same risk of undue emphasis as do videos documenting witnesses’ out-of-court, testimonial statements (like the videotapes at issue in DeBella). The court likewise observed, consistent with well-established precedent, that a defendant’s confession is not subject to the same limitations during deliberations as the out-of-court statements of other witnesses. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Agent May Exercise Apparent or Implied Authority to Reject UM/UIM Insurance Coverage

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Johnson on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Insurance—Agency—Implied Authority.

This case presented two questions for the supreme court’s consideration. First, does the uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) statute, C.R.S. § 10-4-609, require each named insured to reject UM/UIM coverage, or is one named insured’s rejection binding on all? And second, did the legislature, by enacting C.R.S. § 10-4-609, abrogate the common law agency principles of implied authority and apparent authority? The court started with the second question and concluded that nothing in the language of C.R.S. § 10-4-609 precludes an agent from exercising either apparent or implied authority to reject UM/UIM coverage on behalf of a principal. Turning to the facts of this case, the court concluded that the evidence presented at trial established that respondent Johnson delegated to his friend the task of purchasing insurance for their jointly owned car and that, in undertaking this task, the friend had implied authority to reject, and did in fact reject, UM/UIM coverage on Johnson’s behalf. Based on this conclusion, the court found it unnecessary to address the first question presented. The court thus reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: CCIOA Permits Developer to Retain Right of Consent to Declaration Amendments

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Vallagio at Inverness Residential Condominium Association, Inc. v. Metropolitan Homes, Inc. on Monday, June 5, 2017.

Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act—Declaration Amendments—Arbitration Agreements—Colorado Consumer Protection Act Claims.

This case concerned whether (1) the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act, C.R.S. §§ 38-33.3-101 to -402, permits a developer–declarant to retain a right of consent to amendments to a provision of a common interest community’s declaration mandating arbitration of construction defect claims, and (2) the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, C.R.S. §§ 6-1-101 to -1121, precludes arbitration of claims asserted pursuant to that Act. Answering the first question in the affirmative and the second in the negative, the supreme court affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment requiring arbitration of the claims at issue and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.