July 22, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Mens Rea Element of Child Sex-Trafficking Statute Satisfied Where Defendant Recklessly Disregarded Victim’s Underage Status

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Doung on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals had to determine whether a statutory amendment to 18 U.S.C. § 1591, relating to child sex-trafficking, altered the government’s burden in proving the requisite mens rea. The defendants, Tung Doung, William Baker, and Curtis Anthony were each charged with one count of child sex trafficking and one count of conspiracy to engage in child sex-trafficking in violation of 18 U.S.C §§ 1591 and 1594. The defendants moved to dismiss the indictment, on the basis that it did not allege the mens rea element of the child sex trafficking crime, and the district court granted the motion.

Under § 1591, the government can prove the mens rea element of child sex-trafficking pertaining to the age of a child in three ways: (1) by showing that the defendant knew the child was underage; (2) the defendant acted in reckless disregard of their age, or (3) the defendant had a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim prior to engaging in a commercial sex transaction. In the superseding indictment, the government charged the defendants only with having a reasonable opportunity to observe the victim to prove the requisite mens rea.

To interpret the statute, the court began by looking at the plain language of § 1591, stating, “the plainness or ambiguity of statutory language is determined by reference to the language itself, the specific context in which that language is used, and the broader context of the statute as a whole. After looking at the plain language of the statute, the court determined that § 1591 (c) (pertaining to the language adding reasonable observation as a mens rea standard), was not ambiguous, and provides the government a third option for proving a defendant’s mens rea.

Because the section was enacted by congress as a part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the court next addressed the congressional intent behind the addition of § 1591. The court noted that Congress’ stated purpose behind the act was to, “combat trafficking in persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and involuntary servitude,” and that § 1591 was added to provide federal criminal penalties for engaging in such conduct. The court then stated that because Congress added subsection 1591(b) to lessen the government’s burden as to the mens rea required regarding a child’s age, the addition of a third subsection further lessening that burden is wholly consistent with the intent of the TVPA.

The defendants argued that if the court interprets § 1591(c) as giving the government a third avenue to prove mens rea, then the section would effectively relieve the government from having to prove actual knowledge or reckless disregard of a victim’s age. The court rejected the defendant’s argument, and stated that contrary to the defendant’s assertions, the government will still have to prove actual knowledge or reckless disregard in circumstances where the defendants did not have a reasonable opportunity to observe the child victim before engaging in the commercial sex transaction. Additionally, the court stated that the defendant’s preferred interpretation actually goes against the stated objective of the TVPA of lessening the government’s burden by restricting the government’s ability to show mens rea under the reckless disregard standard.

As to the conspiracy charge, the defendants argue that the courts interpretation of § 1591(c) does not resolve if the district court properly dismissed the conspiracy charge. Relying on the seventh circuit holding in United States v. Saldago, the defendants claim that they could not have conspired to commit the crime of child sex-trafficking without knowing that the child in question was actually a minor. The court rejected this claim as well, holding that because the government is alleging the defendants had reasonable opportunity to observe the victim, the indictment specifically charges that the defendants had knowledge of the victim’s age for the purpose of the conspiracy charge as well.

The court reversed the decision of the district court in dismissing both charges against the defendants, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

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: Felony Murder Instruction Adequately Apprised Jury of Elements of Kidnapping

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Esquivel-Castillo v. People on Monday, January 25, 2016.

Sufficiency of an Information—Notice of Charges—Felony Murder.

Esquivel-Castillo petitioned for review of the judgment of the court of appeals affirming his conviction of felony murder. A jury acquitted him of a separate count of kidnapping, charged according to the “seized and carried” alternative way of committing that crime, but convicted him of felony murder for a death caused during his commission or attempted commission of kidnapping the same victim, during the same charged timeframe, by a different statutorily qualifying act of kidnapping. As pertinent to the issue on review in the Supreme Court, the court of appeals rejected Esquivel-Castillo’s assertion that the more specific kidnapping charge necessarily limited the scope of the more generally charged felony murder count to a charge of death caused in the course of or in furtherance of the commission of kidnapping by seizing and carrying the victim from one place to another, resulting in his having been convicted of a crime with which he had never been charged.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. Because one count of an information is not circumscribed by another count of that information unless the latter is incorporated in the former by clear and specific reference, the Court determined that the crime of kidnapping alleged more generally as an element of felony murder was not limited to the specific alternative act of kidnapping alleged in the separate kidnapping count. Therefore, jury instructions as to all statutory forms of kidnapping supported by the evidence did not constructively amend the felony murder charge.

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 Supreme Court: Verdict Forms Did Not Offer Jury Opportunity to Find Elements of Crime Committed

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Sanchez v. People on Monday, May 12, 2014.

Criminal Law—Jury Instructions.

Defendant petitioned for review of the court of appeals’ judgment affirming his conviction for sexual assault on a child as part of a pattern of abuse. The trial court entered judgment of conviction for a class 3 felony on the basis of its finding of two out of six enumerated touching incidents presented on a verdict form entitled “Sexual Assault on a Child–Pattern of Abuse.” A majority of the court of appeals found that defendant had been adequately charged in a single count with both the elements of sexual assault on a child and the pattern-of-abuse sentence enhancer, apart from the count charging simply sexual assault on a child. The court of appeals also held that the jury’s instructions did not make the finding of a pattern of abuse contingent on first finding defendant’s guilt of the separately charged crime of sexual assault on a child.

The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment affirming defendant’s conviction of sexual assault on a child. The Court found that the verdict form by which the jury found defendant guilty of sexual assault on a child–pattern of abuse did not offer the jury an opportunity to find that he committed the elements of sexual assault on a child, and instead reflected at most the jury’s factual finding of two different incidents of sexual contact.

Summary and full case available here.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Proof of Prior Convictions Not “Element” of Class 3 Felony for Motor Vehicle Theft

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Hopkins on Thursday, May 23, 2013.

Aggravated Motor Vehicle Theft—Prior Convictions—Element—Due Process—Class of Felony.

Defendant appealed the judgment of conviction entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

Based on proof that defendant had two prior convictions involving theft of a motor vehicle, the court ruled that the current charge was punishable as a class 3 felony and sentenced defendant to ten years in prison. Defendant contended that proof of his prior convictions is an element of the class 3 felony and that the trial court erred when it did not submit this element to the jury for its determination beyond a reasonable doubt. Alternatively, he argued that even if proof of prior convictions is not an element, due process required the court to submit the question to the jury.

CRS § 18-4-409(2)(a) describes the elements of motor vehicle theft in the first degree, which does not include proof of prior convictions. CRS § 18-4-409(3) addresses only the class of felony (it does not create a separate crime), and CRS § 409(3)(b) describes when aggravated motor vehicle theft in the first degree can be a class 3 felony. Therefore, the actus reus and mens rea are the same for the class 3 and class 4 felonies, and proof of two prior convictions related to motor vehicle theft is not an element of the class 3 felony. It follows that due process does not require that defendant’s prior conviction be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Summary and full case available here.