July 4, 2015

Colorado Supreme Court: Admissibility of Alternate Suspect Evidence Should Be Evaluated on Case-by-Case Basis

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in In re People v. Elmarr on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Alternate Suspect Evidence—Relevance—Hearsay—CRE 403.

In this case, the Supreme Court set forth the proper framework for analyzing the admissibility of alternate suspect evidence. The Court held that the admissibility of such evidence ultimately depends on the strength of the connection between the alternate suspect and the charged crime. The touchstone of relevance in this context is whether the evidence establishes a non-speculative connection or nexus between the alternate suspect and the crime charged. Where the evidence concerns other acts by the alternate suspect, a court must look to whether all the similar acts and circumstances, taken together, support a finding that the same person was probably involved in both the other act and the charged crime. CRE 404(b) principles guide this analysis. In addition, where the evidence concerns statements by the alternate suspect, a court must determine whether the alternate suspect’s statements meet the requirements of CRE 804(b)(3) or any other applicable hearsay exception. Finally, even relevant alternate suspect evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by countervailing policy considerations under CRE 403, such as the danger of confusion of the issues or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Exclusion of Public During Trial was More Than Fleeting Occurrence and Violated Sixth Amendment

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Hassen on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Sixth Amendment Right to Public Trial.

At respondent’s trial, the trial court completely closed the courtroom during the testimony of two undercover officers. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to consider whether this closure constituted structural error. The Court held that the closure violated respondent’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial and rejected the People’s argument that the closure was so trivial that it did not implicate respondent’s Sixth Amendment right. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Proper Remedy for Inadequate Batson Findings is Remand for Further Findings

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Rodriguez on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Batson Challenges.

The Supreme Court held that when a trial court conducts an inadequate inquiry into an equal protection challenge to the exercise of a peremptory strike, the proper remedy is to remand the case so that the trial court may conduct the three-part analysis announced in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), as it is described in this opinion. An inquiry is inadequate when the trial court’s findings are insufficient to determine whether the challenger has proved that the proponent of the peremptory strike purposefully discriminated against a prospective juror on account of the prospective juror’s race. Here, the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard and overruled defendant’s Batson challenge for failure to demonstrate a pattern of discrimination. In so doing, the court never decided whether defendant established that the prosecutor engaged in purposeful discrimination by striking two minority venire members. Accordingly, the Court ordered the case returned to the trial court with directions to conduct the three-part Batson analysis.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Defendant Waived Public Trial by Not Objecting to Closed Courtroom During Voir Dire

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Stackhouse v. People on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Sixth Amendment Right to Public Trial—Waiver.

At petitioner’s trial, the court closed the courtroom for a portion of voir dire because the large jury pool created the risk of interested members of the public intermingling with the jurors and potentially biasing them. Petitioner’s counsel did not object to the closure at that time or at any time during the trial. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether petitioner affirmatively waived his right to a public trial in accordance with Anderson v. People, 490 P.2d 47, 48 (Colo. 1971), by not objecting to the known closure. The Court held that Anderson remains controlling, and thus petitioner affirmatively waived his public trial right when he did not object to the known closure. The court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Court Reviewing Batson Challenge Should Only Reverse for Clear Error

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Wilson on Monday, June 29, 2015.

Batson Challenges.

In Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court created a three-part analysis to uncover and prevent unconstitutional discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges. In the instant case, the court of appeals held that the prosecutor necessarily violated Batson and engaged in purposeful discrimination because the record refutes her asserted race-neutral reason for peremptorily striking a black venire member. However, a discrepancy between a strike proponent’s justification and the record of voir dire sometimes reflects a mistaken recollection rather than purposeful discrimination.

The Supreme Court held that an error in recollection does not compel a finding of purposeful discrimination in contravention of the Equal Protection Clause as interpreted in Batson. Rather, the Batson analysis requires the trial court to assess the credibility of the proponent of a peremptory strike and determine whether to believe her race-neutral explanation. Unless the opponent of the strike can prove purposeful discrimination, the trial court should deny the Batson challenge. Because the trial court in this case did not clearly err by accepting the prosecutor’s race-neutral explanation, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Conviction Stands Despite Jury’s Lack of Instruction on “Discharge” of Firearm

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Mann on Monday, May 18, 2015.

Clay Mann threw a firework into a neighbor’s bonfire at the neighbor’s peaceful gathering on an Indian reservation, and when members of the gathering approached the fenceline to confront Mann, he shot nine times, killing one man and grievously wounding one other man and the neighbor. For these acts, he was indicted on eight counts by a federal grand jury. Two weeks after the jury’s verdict, Mann filed a “motion to arrest judgment” based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013), arguing that his conviction on Count 5 (a firearms offense based on the assault of the neighbor under § 924(c)) must be vacated because the jury did not find “discharge” of a firearm beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court conducted a plain error inquiry and determined it had erred by failing to instruct the jury on the element of discharging the firearm and the error was plain. The district court, however, found the error had not prejudiced Mann, because he had never contested that he fired shots. The district court sentenced Mann to three concurrent 51 month sentences for the involuntary manslaughter and two assault convictions, and a consecutive 120 month sentence for the § 924(c) conviction regarding the assault of the neighbor. Mann appealed.

The Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review. Mann argued on appeal that the district court constructively amended count 5 of his indictment by not instructing the jury that, to convict, it needed to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he knowingly discharged his firearm in relation to the assault. Finding that the district court properly instructed the jury on the elements of a § 924(c) violation, the Tenth Circuit could discern no error, much less plain error. The Tenth Circuit found that the Alleyne error (failure to instruct the jury that it must find discharge beyond a reasonable doubt) did not qualify Mann for any relief in light of the overwhelming evidence that he discharged a firearm several times during the assault, including Mann’s own FBI interview in which he admitted discharging the firearm. Any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of this evidence.

The Tenth Circuit likewise concluded Mann could not use the error from the Alleyne analysis on his constructive amendment claim, since he was not required to show constructive amendment for his Alleyne claim. Although the government endorsed Mann’s “shortcut,” the Tenth Circuit did not. Turning to the merits of Mann’s argument, the Tenth Circuit noted the case law on which he relied for his claim of error had been rejected by the Supreme Court. The Tenth Circuit, relying on good case law, found that Mann failed to show any error and rejected his constructive amendment claim.

The district court’s conviction was affirmed.

Tenth Circuit: Totality of Circumstances Provides Reasonable Suspicion for Extended Traffic Stop

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Pettit on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.

Michael Pettit was pulled over in Utah after crossing a highway’s fog line multiple times. During the traffic stop, Pettit seemed excessively nervous, produced a suspended Missouri driver’s license after passing over a California license, and reported unusual travel plans to the trooper. The trooper asked permission to search the trunk of the car, which Pettit granted, and conducted a cursory pat-down search of the luggage, finding nothing. The trooper checked Pettit’s licenses, discovered they were both suspended, and completed the citation paperwork, but instead of returning the citation and license to Pettit, the trooper decided to question him further. He requested consent to search the entire car, which Pettit granted, and soon a drug-sniffing dog arrived and alerted to the presence of drugs. Over 2.5 kilograms of cocaine was found hidden in a spare tire in the trunk. Pettit was indicted on one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was found guilty by a jury. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment followed by eight years’ supervised release. He appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence uncovered after the trooper completed the citation.

Pettit contended the trooper unlawfully extended the traffic stop based on “hunches and unjustified generalizations.” The parties agree that the initial traffic stop was lawful since Pettit crossed the fog line multiple times, and they agree that the initial stop ended when the trooper returned with the completed citation. However, since the trooper did not return Pettit’s license and registration at that time, the encounter did not become consensual. The parties disagree about whether there was reasonable suspicion justifying the continuation of the traffic stop at that time. The Tenth Circuit evaluated each factor supporting reasonable suspicion separately and in aggregate.

Pettit first argued his nervousness could not form the basis for reasonable suspicion. However, the Tenth Circuit examined the record and found that the trooper testified with particularity about the excessive nature of Pettit’s nervousness, including that his lower body would not stop shaking, Pettit said twice within 25 seconds that the officer was making him nervous, and his hand was shaking as he gave the trooper his license. The Tenth Circuit next addressed Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Although travel plans in themselves may not necessarily form the basis for reasonable suspicion, the court found that prior to the citation’s completion, the trooper had discovered Pettit was driving cross-country in a vehicle registered to an absent third party, which is consistent with drug trafficking. Next, Pettit argued that the two suspended licenses could not have given rise to reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the licenses alone could have contributed to the formation of an objectively reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, and could also have heightened the officer’s suspicion about Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Finally, Pettit argued that the officer’s initial fruitless search militated against a finding of reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the search was only cursory and occurred before much of the officer’s questioning.

Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s denial of Pettit’s motion to suppress, and found the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.

Tenth Circuit: No Error in Allowing Government to Use Rule 410 Evidence Against Defendant Who Withdrew Plea

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Jim on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.

K.T. had a get-together with some friends at her home on the Navajo Nation, and one of her friends invited Derrick Jim. The group drank alcohol and socialized under K.T.’s carport. Around 1 a.m., K.T. went inside to sleep on her couch. Jim followed her inside, turned off the interior lights and locked the doors, dragged her down the hallway, and forcibly raped her vaginally and anally while K.T. tried to fight him off. As a result of these events, the United States charged Jim with one count of aggravated sexual abuse—vaginal intercourse by force, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2241(a)(1) and 2246(2)(A). Jim initially entered into a plea agreement with the government. He pleaded guilty, but before the district court could accept the plea agreement, Jim sent a pro se letter to the district court requesting new counsel because he felt pressured into accepting the plea agreement and did not realize that by entering a plea he would not be allowed to go to trial. The district court appointed new counsel, allowed Jim to withdraw his guilty plea, and allowed him to proceed to trial, where he was found guilty of two counts: the original count plus aggravated sexual abuse—anal penetration by force. He received two concurrent 360-month sentences. On appeal, Jim argued the government should not have been allowed to use FRE 410 evidence against him because his plea was not knowing and voluntary. The government cross-appealed, arguing the district court should have applied a two-level sentence enhancement for causing serious bodily injury.

The Tenth Circuit addressed the Rule 410 contention first. Jim’s argument was that because his plea was not knowing and voluntary, the Rule 410 waiver he signed (allowing the government to use evidence from the plea agreement process during trial) was not valid. Although Jim was required to prove his plea was not knowing and voluntary, he asserted he should be held to a lesser burden based on a line from a Supreme Court decision. Reading the decision as a whole, the Tenth Circuit rejected his argument, finding that Jim offered no proof that his plea was not knowing and voluntary. Jim signed the plea agreement, which adequately apprised him that by doing so he waived his Rule 410 rights, he had a high school education with some college credits, and he had previously signed two other plea agreements related to drunk driving. The Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s decision to allow the government to use Rule 410 evidence against Jim.

Next, the Tenth Circuit evaluated the government’s contention that the district court erred by disregarding a two-level sentence enhancement for crimes causing serious bodily injury. The district court, relying on the application note for U.S.S.G. § 2A3.1(b)(4)(B), decided it was not allowed to consider serious bodily injuries caused during sexual assaults in applying the sentence enhancement. The Tenth Circuit, however, analyzed the definition of “serious bodily injury” and determined that the application note referred only to the second definition. If the prosecution proved serious bodily injury under the first definition, the two-level enhancement could still apply. The Tenth Circuit remanded for the district court to determine if Jim’s actions caused serious bodily injury and to resentence if appropriate.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for consideration of whether Jim’s conduct caused serious bodily injury to the victim.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Reversal Required when Jury Instructed on Uncharged Felony Offense Rather than Charged Misdemeanor

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Riley on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Attempt to Influence a Public Servant—Tampering With Physical Evidence—Second-Degree Forgery—Jury Instructions—Constructive Amendment of Information—Jury Deliberations—Audio Recording.

The People charged defendant with third-degree assault and harassment for allegedly attacking his ex-wife in July 2006. After the charges were filed, defendant gave his attorney a receipt from a hotel in Kansas that purportedly showed that defendant was not in Colorado on the dates of the charged offenses. Because the receipt contained fraudulent information based on defendant’s alterations of it, the People charged defendant with attempt to influence a public servant, tampering with physical evidence, and second-degree forgery. He was convicted by a jury on all counts.

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred when it instructed the jury on the uncharged offense of felony forgery rather than the charged offense of second-degree forgery (a misdemeanor). The trial court’s instruction constituted a constructive amendment of the information because it changed an essential element of the charged offense and allowed the jury to convict defendant of an uncharged crime. Further, second-degree forgery is not a lesser included offense of felony forgery. Because it is constitutionally prohibited to convict a defendant of a charge not contained in the information, defendant’s conviction for second-degree forgery was reversed.

Defendant also argued that because the trial court did not provide the jury with instructions defining the terms “attempt” and “official proceeding,” his respective convictions for attempt to influence a public servant and tampering with physical evidence must be reversed. There is no reference to the criminal definition of “attempt,” and adding such a definition would result in an absurd result. Further, although “official proceeding” is defined in the statute, any error was harmless because defendant failed to show that this error contributed to his conviction for tampering with physical evidence.

Defendant argued that the trial court erred in allowing the jury during deliberations unfettered access to an audio recording between the prosecutor and defendant’s ex-wife about a conversation she had with defendant. When defendant’s ex-wife testified at trial, she denied everything she had initially told the police about the attack and all the statements she had made during the recorded interview with the prosecutor. Therefore, the audio recording of the interview was admitted as prior inconsistent statements, and the recording was played for the jury during her testimony. Although the trial court failed to exercise its discretion with respect to the jury’s access to the recording during deliberations, such failure did not substantially influence the verdict or affect the fairness of the trial such that reversal of defendant’s convictions was required.

The case was remanded for a new trial on the charge of second-degree forgery. The remaining convictions were affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: No Preservation Requirement for Sufficiency Claims Under Colorado Law

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. McCoy on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

CRS § 18-3-404—Medical Professionals—Actors.

The prosecution charged McCoy with unlawful sexual contact against two men, P.K. and G.M., arising out of separate incidents. According to each of the victims, McCoy told them that he worked in the television industry and invited them to work for them. During the victim’s interviews and training, held at McCoy’s house, McCoy touched them and asked them sexual questions. McCoy had previously told the victims that he was a physician. A jury convicted McCoy of four counts of unlawful sexual contact.

McCoy argued on appeal that the prosecution presented insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions under CRS § 18-3-404(1)(g), because the statute proscribes only conduct occurring in a physician–patient relationship and as part of a medical exam or medical treatment. Although McCoy raised this issue for the first time on appeal, Colorado law contains no preservation requirement for sufficiency claims. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reviewed the sufficiency of the evidence de novo, and found that the statute is clear and unambiguous and is not limited to medical professionals or those who claim to be medical professionals.

Here, the jury could have concluded that the victims submitted to examinations because McCoy led them to believe the examinations were part of a hiring process. The jury could also reasonably have concluded that McCoy examined the victims for his sexual gratification, and not for bona fide medical purposes, because both victims testified that McCoy touched their intimate parts while he examined them. Therefore, the evidence was sufficient to sustain McCoy’s convictions under CRS § 18-3-404(1)(g). The Court further held that the statute’s plain terms are not unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Constructive Amendment to Charges Does Not Require Reversal Where No Plain Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Weeks on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Death of a Child—Other Acts Evidence—Jury Instruction—Indictment—Pattern of Conduct—Expert Medical Testimony—Substitution of Counsel.

Defendant appealed the judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding him guilty of first-degree murder and child abuse. Defendant’s convictions arose out the death of his 3-year-old daughter, A.M., who was declared brain dead after she was physically abused after urinating in her bed.

On appeal, defendant contended that reversal was required because the trial court erroneously admitted evidence of other acts showing that defendant had physically punished his other daughters and family pets for urinating and/or vomiting in the house. This other-acts evidence was properly admitted to show intent, knowledge, and absence of mistake or accident pursuant to CRE 404(b), and the incidents were sufficiently similar and numerous to be probative of an issue that was in dispute. Further, the evidence was logically relevant to disprove defendant’s claim that A.M.’s death was accidental.

Defendant also contended that his conviction and sentence for child abuse must be reversed or vacated because the court’s elemental jury instruction on child abuse effected a constructive amendment of the charge contained in the indictment. Defendant was charged in the indictment with all three categories of abuse. Varying slightly from the text of CRS § 18-6-401(1)(a), however, the indictment did not listmalnourishment and lack of proper medical care as the effects of defendant’s continued pattern of conduct against A.M. Moreover, the instruction included the two statutory effects that had been omitted from the indictment. Therefore, the instruction constructively amended the indictment. However, because defendant did not object to the instructions in the trial court, reversal was not warranted.

Defendant contended there was insufficient evidence of a causal connection between defendant’s pattern of conduct and A.M.’s death to support his conviction. The last phrase of CRS § 18-6-401(1)(a) (“ultimately results in the death of a child or serious bodily injury to a child”) applies only to the last enumerated pattern of abuse (“an accumulation of injuries”). The other enumerated patterns of abuse do not require a showing that they resulted in death or serious bodily injury. Therefore, it was sufficient for the prosecution to show that defendant engaged in a pattern of conduct that resulted in mistreatment and cruel punishment of A.M., which ultimately resulted in A.M.’s death.

Defendant also argued that the trial court erred in permitting expert medical testimony on an ultimate issue to be determined by the jury. It was not an abuse of discretion to allow four medical experts to testify that A.M.’s injuries were not accidental. These experts did not give an opinion regarding whether defendant inflicted A.M.’s injuries or whether those injuries fit the legal definition of child abuse.

Defendant argued that the court deprived him of his right to conflict-free counsel, to present a defense, and to testify when it denied his midtrial request for a substitution of counsel. An actual conflict does not arise when trial counsel pursues a strategy that would impede a defendant’s right to testify, even over the defendant’s protest. Any alleged conflict did not deprive defendant of the right to testify and call witnesses. Consequently, the trial court did not error in denying defendant’s request for new counsel. The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Picture of Accused in Photo Lineup Must Match Victim’s Initial Description

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Singley on Thursday, June 18, 2015.

Due Process—Out-of-Court Identification—Photo Lineup—Jury Instructions—Witness Credibility—Subpoena—Testimony—Cumulative.

The victim, J.A.C., was commuting home from work when two men, both carrying handguns, confronted him. When J.A.C. shouted for help, one of the men opened fire, shooting him three times, fracturing his pelvic bone, and causing permanent scarring. Singling and another man were arrested later that evening after robbing another woman. J.A.C. identified Singley as the shooter in a photo lineup. A jury found Singley guilty of attempted second-degree murder, first-degree assault, attempted aggravated, robbery, and felony menacing.

On appeal, Singley contended that the trial court violated his right to due process and a fair trial when it declined to suppress the allegedly impermissibly suggestive and unreliable out-of-court identification, as well as the subsequent in-court identification. Immediately after the shooting, J.A.C. told officers that the shooter was in his 20s with a medium-length Afro. Several days later, the police presented J.A.C. with a photographic lineup built around Singley, which showed six bald men, all of whom appear to be of the same general age as Singley, who was 46. Because the picture of Singley did not match the initial description given by the witness, the trial court erred when it found that the lineup was not impermissibly suggestive. Under the totality of the circumstances, including J.A.C.’s view of the witness at the crime scene and only taking forty-five seconds to identify Singley in the photo lineup, J.A.C.’s identifications of Singley were nonetheless reliable.

Singley contended that the trial court abused its discretion when it refused to give four proposed jury instructions on the reliability of eyewitness identification testimony. The court gave the jury a pattern witness credibility instruction, accurately informing it of the applicable law. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it refused to give Singley’s four additional instructions.

Singley contended that the trial court abused its discretion and violated his right to present a complete defense when it quashed his subpoena of the Aurora police chief. Specifically, he asserted that the court improperly precluded the police chief’s testimony regarding his assistance in helping J.A.C. obtain a U-Visa, which allowed him to reside and work legally in the United States. Singley cross-examined J.A.C. regarding receipt of this U-Visa in exchange for his cooperation in the investigation to establish his motive for testifying and bias. Singley’s counsel also questioned the officer who helped J.A.C. with the U-Visa application. Therefore, the testimony of the Aurora police chief was cumulative and irrelevant, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it quashed the subpoena. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.