June 28, 2017

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 Court of Appeals: Aggravated Incest Statute Constitutional As Applied to Stepchildren of Common Law Marriages

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Perez-Rodriguez on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Sexual Assault—Minor—Aggravated Incest Statute—Common Law Marriage—Stepchildren—Unconstitutionally Vague as Applied—Jury Instruction—Mens Rea—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Due Process—Admission—Involuntary.

Defendant and A.S. lived together, and though they were never formally married, they publicly referred to each other as husband and wife. J.H-S. was one of A.S.’s children from a previous marriage, and while defendant never formally adopted her, they referred to each other as father and daughter. When J.H-S. was 15 years old, defendant forced her to have sexual intercourse with him on two separate occasions and impregnated her. When defendant was taken into custody, a detective questioned him for about 40 minutes. He was advised of his Miranda rights and signed a waiver. Defendant initially denied having had sexual intercourse with J.H.-S., but after about 15 more minutes, he confessed. Defendant was convicted of two counts each of aggravated incest, sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust as a pattern of conduct, and sexual assault with the actor 10 years older than the victim.

On appeal, defendant first contended that the aggravated incest statute is unconstitutionally vague as applied to stepchildren of common law marriages. However, there is sufficient guidance through statute, case law, and the plain meaning of “stepchild” that a person in a common law marriage has sufficient notice as to the prohibited conduct of aggravated incest.

Defendant next contended that the trial court’s elemental instruction on aggravated incest failed to properly instruct the jury on the scope of the mens rea required to sustain a conviction. Specifically, defendant claimed that the way the jury instruction was written, the “knowingly” mens rea applied only to his act of subjecting J.H-S. to sexual penetration or sexual intrusion, and not to whether he knew she was his stepchild. Regardless of whether the instruction was erroneous, however, the evidence that defendant knew J.H-S. was his stepdaughter was overwhelming. Therefore, any error was not plain error.

Defendant then argued that the prosecution misstated the law on common law marriage during rebuttal closing argument, thereby committing reversible misconduct. The court’s instruction properly defined common law marriage and cohabitation. Although the prosecutor’s simple reference to “cohabitation,” viewed in isolation, may have misstated the law, when viewed in context as rebuttal to defendant’s arguments, there was no plain error.

Finally, defendant asserted that his confession was involuntary and that its admission violated his state and federal due process rights. Based on the totality of the circumstances, defendant’s admission was voluntary and the trial court did not err in admitting it into evidence.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Evidence Insufficient to Prove Photographs were “Erotic Nudity” and “Sexually Exploitative Material”

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Henley on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Sexual Exploitation of a Child—Erotic Nudity—Objective Standard.

A detective searched defendant’s computer and found over 90 images that he thought were sexually exploitative. The charged images that were introduced into evidence  show fully or partially naked children (sometimes accompanied by adults) talking, walking, and standing outside, posing in costumes, or participating in activities like body painting and games. The prosecution was also allowed to introduce uncharged images as relevant to show context. A jury found defendant guilty of 22 counts of sexual exploitation of a child (possession of materials) and one count of sexual exploitation of a child (possession of more than 20 items).

On appeal, defendant contended that his convictions should be vacated because there was insufficient evidence that the charged images are “sexually exploitative” as required to support a conviction under C.R.S. § 18-6-403(3) because they weren’t “erotic nudity.” Under C.R.S. § 18-6-403(3)(b.5), a person commits sexual exploitation of a child if he knowingly possesses or controls sexually exploitative material. “Sexually exploitative material” is any photograph depicting a child engaged or participating in, observing, or being used for explicit sexual conduct. Explicit sexual conduct includes, as relevant in this case, “erotic nudity.” The People conceded that the charged images don’t depict “erotic nudity” if viewed objectively. When viewed objectively, images that are not “erotic nudity” don’t become so merely because a particular person—one not involved in the creation or distribution of the images—looks at them for the purpose of personal sexual gratification. Therefore, evidence that defendant viewed the charged images for sexual gratification was insufficient to support defendant’s convictions.

The judgment was vacated.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Law of the Case Doctrine Does Not Prohibit Officer from Requesting Warrant for Previously Illegally Obtained Evidence

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. George on Thursday, June 1, 2017.

Sexual Contact—Minor—Search—Suppression—Warrant—Independent Source Doctrine—Law of the Case Doctrine—Joinder—CRE 404(b)—C.R.S. § 16-10-301(3).

George was arrested on charges related to sexual encounters with underage girls A.R. and G.D. Following George’s arrest and inability to post bond, he was evicted from his apartment. The landlord had George’s car towed from the premises to an impound lot. The lead investigator obtained the towing company’s consent to search the car and instead of seeking a warrant, obtained the company’s consent to examine the GPS device in the vehicle. Data obtained from a forensic examination of the GPS device showed that George’s movements were generally consistent with the victims’ testimony about their meetings with him. George moved to suppress, challenging the car search and the examination of the GPS device. The court suppressed evidence obtained from examination of the device. Rather than appealing the suppression order, the prosecution directed the investigator to seek a search warrant for the GPS device from a different magistrate. When applying for the warrant, the investigator did not specifically refer to data obtained from examination of the GPS device nor disclose the suppression ruling. The warrant was issued and the GPS device was reexamined. George again moved to suppress. The court denied the motion to suppress based on the independent source doctrine. The court found that that the decision to seek the warrant had not been based on the fruits of the initial unlawful search and information from the search had not been presented to the magistrate as a basis for seeking the warrant. A jury convicted George of multiple offenses arising from his sexual contact with two young girls.

On appeal, the Attorney General argued that the data obtained from the initial warrantless search of George’s GPS device in his vehicle should not have been suppressed because the search was conducted in good faith. Because the Attorney General did not challenge the trial court’s consent ruling based on a question of law, the validity of the initial search was not properly before the court of appeals.

George argued on appeal that the trial court should have suppressed data obtained from the second examination of the GPS device because the first suppression order was the law of the case and an unchallenged order that applied the exclusionary rule. Here, had the towing company not asserted ownership of the GPS device and given its consent to examination, the investigator would have sought a warrant to search the device. Therefore, the investigator did not later seek a warrant based on the fruits of the warrantless search. Additionally, the investigator did not specifically refer to any data obtained from examination of the GPS device in the warrant application. Thus, the warrant at issue in the second suppression hearing raised a different issue—independent source—that was not and could not have been raised at the first suppression hearing, and the law of the case doctrine does not apply.

George also argued that the trial court erred in joining the cases involving A.R. and G.D. over his objection. Here, evidence related to A.R. and G.D. was sufficiently similar to establish a common plan or scheme under CRE 404(b) and C.R.S. § 16-10-301(3). Therefore, evidence from each case would be admissible in the other. Because George did not show prejudice, the trial court properly joined the trials involving A.R. and G.D.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Property Stored in Evidence Locker Is Not Owned by County

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Berry on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Sheriff’s DeputyEmbezzlementPublic PropertyOwnershipOfficial Misconduct.

Berry was a sheriff’s deputy when he responded to a domestic violence call involving a husband and his wife. Four guns were removed from the home while the domestic violence charges were pending. After those charges were resolved, the district attorney authorized the sheriff to either destroy the guns or return them to their rightful owner. Because the owner (the husband) had been deported from the United States, the sheriff could not return them to him, so the sheriff planned to destroy them. Instead, before the guns were destroyed, Berry purchased them from wife. A jury found Berry guilty of embezzlement of public property and first degree official misconduct.

On appeal, Berry argued that the evidence admitted at trial was insufficient to support a guilty verdict on the embezzlement charge. He asserted that the statute under which he was charged requires proof that the guns were owned, not merely possessed, by the county, and there was no such evidence. A person is culpable under C.R.S. § 18-8-407(1) only if he knowingly converts public moneys or property to his own use or to any use other than the public use authorized by law. Because there is no evidence that Lake County or any other public entity owned the guns, there was insufficient evidence to support Berry’s conviction for embezzlement.

Berry also contended that the evidence didn’t sufficiently prove that he committed “an act relating to his office but constituting an unauthorized exercise of his official function,” an element of first degree official misconduct. Here, Berry committed an act relating to his office because he used his office as a sheriff’s deputy to facilitate and effectuate the purchase of the guns. Berry followed the wife in his police car, spoke to her while in full police uniform, and gave her comfort that, because he was a police officer, the transaction was lawful. Thus, sufficient evidence supports the official misconduct conviction.

The judgment for conviction for embezzlement of public property was vacated and the case was remanded for entry of a judgment of acquittal on that charge. The judgment of conviction for first degree official misconduct was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Witness’s Vague and Fleeting Reference to Prior Criminal Activity Did Not Undermine Fairness of Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Salas on Thursday, May 18, 2017.

Sexual Assault on a Child—Due Process—Mistrial—Prior Criminality—Videotaped Interview—Inconsistent Statements—Sexually Violent Predator—Findings of Fact.

A jury found Salas guilty of sexual assault on a 9-year-old child by one in a position of trust and sexual assault on a child, pattern of abuse. The trial court’s order found him to be a sexually violent predator (SVP).

On appeal, Salas contended that the trial court abused its discretion and violated his rights to due process, a fair trial, and an impartial jury by denying his motion for a mistrial after victim’s grandmother testified by giving a nonresponsive answer to a question which, Salas contended, impermissibly referred to prior criminality. Because grandmother’s remark was fleeting, minimally prejudicial, and immediately followed by a curative instruction, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Salas’s motion for a mistrial.

Salas next contended that the district court abused its discretion when it denied his request to play a videotaped interview of grandmother. Here, defense counsel sufficiently confronted grandmother with her inconsistent statements and she either explained or conceded them. Thus admission of the videotape would have been cumulative, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

Salas also argued that the trial court’s determination that he qualified as an SVP failed to satisfy statutory and due process requirements because the court never made specific findings of fact in support of its determination as required by C.R.S. § 18-3-414.5(2). While the record evidence might support a conclusion that Salas either promoted or established a relationship with the victim for purposes of sexual victimization, the court did not make specific findings on this matter, and other evidence might lead to the opposite conclusion. This error was substantial and cast serious doubt on the reliability of the SVP designation.

The judgment and sentence were affirmed. The SVP designation was vacated and the case was remanded for the trial court to make specific findings of fact regarding Salas’s SVP designation.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: DUI Suspect’s Refusal to Consent to Blood Test May Be Used as Evidence of Guilt

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Maxwell on Monday, May 15, 2017.

Searches and Seizures—Refusal to Submit to Blood-Alcohol Testing—Admission of Refusal Evidence.

In this interlocutory appeal, the supreme court considered whether the prosecution’s use of a defendant’s refusal to consent to blood-alcohol testing as evidence of guilt at trial for a drunk-driving offense, in accordance with C.R.S. § 42-4-1301(6)(d), violates his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. Because the court recently held in Fitzgerald v. People, 2017 CO 26, P.3d, that the use of such refusal evidence does not violate the Fourth Amendment, that holding controls here, and defendant’s challenge to C.R.S. § 42-4-1301(6)(d) fails. The court therefore reversed the trial court’s order.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Authentication of Text Messages Requires Testimony Verifying Printouts and Identifying Sender

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Heisler on Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Harassment—Text Messages—Evidence—Domestic Violence—Sentencing—Sixth Amendment.

The victim and Heisler dated for three years. After they broke up, the victim told Heisler that she no longer wished to communicate with him. Heisler ignored the victim’s request and sent her numerous text messages and letters, and eventually traveled from Florida, where he lived, to Colorado to talk to the victim in person—uninvited and unannounced. When the victim saw Heisler outside of her home, she called the police. Heisler was ultimately found guilty of harassment and sentenced to jail time and probation, and because the conduct underlying his conviction included an act of domestic violence, he was ordered to complete domestic violence treatment.

On appeal, Heisler contended that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence the text messages he sent to the victim because they were not properly authenticated under CRE 901(a). Here, the prosecution introduced printouts of the text messages, and the victim testified that they accurately reflected the texts she received, she recognized the number as being Heisler’s and had used that number to communicate with him, and she recognized the content of the text messages as being from Heisler. In addition, the content of the text messages included corroborative evidence that they came from Heisler. Accordingly, the text messages were properly authenticated and it was not error to admit them into evidence.

Heisler also contended that the domestic violence sentencing statute, C.R.S. § 18-6-801(1)(a), is facially violative of his constitutional right to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He argued that the statute improperly authorizes the trial court to make a factual determination that the underlying crime of conviction included an act of domestic violence and unconstitutionally imposes a mandatory penalty (domestic violence treatment) above the minimum of the presumptive sentencing range (here, a $50 fine). He further contended that the trial court should have instructed the jury to determine whether his offense included an act of domestic violence and erred in denying his request for that instruction. C.R.S. § 18-6-801(1) allows a trial court to make a factual finding that the defendant’s underlying criminal conviction included an act of domestic violence. Court-ordered domestic violence treatment is not a form of punishment, and the statute does not mandate a penalty. The court did not err in denying Heisler’s request for a jury instruction. No Sixth Amendment violation occurred.

The judgment and sentence were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant’s Right to Private Counsel of Choice Conflicts with State’s Appointment of Experts

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Thompson on Thursday, May 4, 2017.

Child Abuse Resulting in Death—Sixth Amendment—Right to Counsel—Public Defender—Indigent—Ancillary Services—CJD 04-04—Statute of Limitations—False Reporting—Conspiracy—Out-of-Court Statements—Hearsay—Expert Witnesses—Credibility—Consecutive Sentences.

Defendant was charged with multiple crimes related to child abuse. After he was indicted, he appeared before the court with attorney Lane, who had represented defendant for about two years as “retained counsel.” Lane stated that defendant was indigent, and although Lane was willing to continue to represent defendant as “retained counsel,” defendant could not pay for ancillary services, such as investigators or experts. Lane stated that the Constitution required the court to provide ancillary services to indigent defendants at state expense. Relying on a U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, Lane contended that the court should allow him to continue to represent defendant and also agree to pay state funds for ancillary services. Lane asserted that Gonzalez-Lopez is in conflict with the Colorado Supreme Court case People v. Cardenas, under which defendant was being forced to choose between two constitutional rights: the right to counsel of choice and the right to receive ancillary services at state expense. The trial court declined to overrule Cardenas and appointed public defenders to represent defendant, and Lane’s connection with the case ended. Defendant was convicted of multiple charges, including child abuse resulting in death, child abuse, assault, false reporting, concealing a child’s death, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and conspiracy. The trial court sentenced defendant to 12 years in jail to be followed by 102 years in prison.

On appeal, defendant asserted that the trial court denied his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of his choice when it did not authorize Lane to receive state-funded ancillary services for defendant’s representation. Indigent defendants do not have a constitutional right to use state funds to pay for attorneys or for ancillary services of their choosing. Defendant only had a right to state-funded ancillary services if the public defender or court-appointed alternate defense counsel represented him. Therefore, the trial court did not wrongfully deny defendant’s constitutional right to counsel of choice when it appointed public defenders to represent him. However, Chief Justice Directive 04-04 (CJD 04-04), Appointment of State-Funded Counsel in Criminal Cases and for Contempt of Court, would have allowed the trial court to pay for support services for a defendant who is represented by private counsel. The trial court did not consider the Directive when it decided to appoint the public defenders, and defendant’s private counsel did not ask the court to do so. Any error in not considering CJD 04-04 was harmless in this case.

Defendant also contended that the trial court erred when it denied his motion for judgment of acquittal on the false reporting and conspiracy to commit false reporting counts because they were barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The record contains sufficient evidence to support these convictions based on conduct that had occurred within 18 months of when the grand jury indicted defendant on those charges. Therefore, these convictions were not barred by the statute of limitations.

Defendant further contended that the trial court erroneously admitted the out-of-court statements of defendant’s girlfriend and children who lived with them. As to the girlfriend’s statements, some were admissible as statements against interest; others were admissible as co-conspirator statements; and though the Court of Appeals could not determine the trustworthiness of one statement, it concluded its admission was harmless error. The children’s statements were variously admissible as non-hearsay, or under the child hearsay statute, or under the residual hearsay exception.

Defendant additionally contended that two expert witnesses improperly vouched for the children’s credibility. However, the experts did not vouch for the children’s veracity, either directly or indirectly; rather, their testimony concerned the typical demeanor and traits of abused children.

Defendant also asserted that the trial court erred when it admitted certain financial evidence, contending that it was only relevant to show that defendant and his girlfriend were “sponges on society.” However, this evidence was relevant and its relevancy was not outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

Defendant also argued that the court admitted evidence he described as cumulative. The court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion.

Finally, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it imposed consecutive sentences on the misdemeanor child abuse counts.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Allowing Jury Unfettered Access to DVD Unfairly Prejudiced Defendant

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Jefferson on Monday, April 24, 2017.

Testimonial Evidence—Electronic Exhibits—Jury Deliberations—Abuse of Discretion.

This case concerns the scope of a trial court’s discretion to permit, deny, or restrict the jury’s access during deliberations to a DVD containing the recorded statement of a child sexual assault victim, which DVD was admitted as an exhibit in a criminal trial. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the trial court did not employ the requisite caution to ensure that the DVD would not be used in such a manner as to create a likelihood that the jury would accord it undue weight or emphasis. Specifically, the trial court relied on the Colorado Court of Appeals’ analysis in People v. DeBella, 219 P.3d 390, 396-97 (Colo. App. 2009), rev’d, 233 P.3d 664 (Colo. 2010). By relying on an analysis that the supreme court later rejected, the trial court misapplied the law and abused its discretion. Moreover, because the nature of the DVD and its importance to the case’s resolution left the court with grave doubts as to the effect that unfettered access had on the verdict and the fairness of the proceedings, the court could not deem the error harmless. The court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: No Plain Error in Allowing Jury Access to DVD Where Defense Based on Motive, Not Inconsistency

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Martinez v. People on Monday, April 24, 2017.

Testimonial Evidence—Electronic Exhibits—Jury Deliberations—Plain Error.

The Colorado Supreme Court reviewed for plain error a trial court’s decision to allow the jury unfettered access, during its deliberations, to the out-of-court statements of three sexual assault victims. These statements were memorialized in three DVDs and three transcripts thereof, all of which had been admitted as exhibits in petitioner’s criminal trial. The court concluded that even if the trial court erred in allowing the jury unfettered access to the victims’ statements, on the facts of this case, any such error did not so undermine the fundamental fairness of the trial itself as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of petitioner’s convictions, and thus was not plain. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Robberies Were Sufficiently Similar for Joinder of Criminal Trials

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Butson on Thursday, April 20, 2017.

Bank RobberyJoinderSpecial ProsecutorStatements to PoliceSettlement NegotiationsCRE 408.

Butson was charged in three cases with bank robbery and conspiracy to commit bank robbery. Butson was interviewed by police, waived his Miranda rights, and provided details about the planning and commission of the robberies. He later moved to suppress his statements on the theory that he made them during the course of settlement discussions and therefore they were inadmissible at trial under CRE 408. The trial court denied the motion. Butson was also charged with witness tampering based on a letter he sent to a witness. Because the prosecutor in the bank robbery cases had handled the letter, Butson contended that he was entitled to a special prosecutor in all of his cases. The court determined that the prosecutor was not a potential witness in the witness tampering case and denied Butson’s request for a special prosecutor. The prosecution moved to join the three bank robbery cases for trial, which motion was granted, and a jury found Butson guilty of all but two counts. The witness tampering case was later dismissed.

On appeal, Butson first contended that the district court erred by joining the three bank robbery cases for trial. A trial court may try two or more criminal complaints together if the offenses could have been joined in a single complaint. Two or more offenses may be charged in the same charging document if the offenses are of the same or similar character or are based on two or more connected acts or transactions or are part of a common scheme or plan. Here, Butson and his sons committed all of the robberies during the course of a few months, all involved the same banks in relatively close proximity to each other, and all were sufficiently similar in planning and execution. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion in joining the cases for trial.

Butson next contended that where the lead prosecutor in the consolidated bank robbery cases was endorsed as a witness in the later-filed witness tampering case, the district court erred in denying his motion for a special prosecutor. Butson argued that a special prosecutor was necessary to prevent the appearance of impropriety created by the prosecutor’s potential appearance as a witness in the related witness tampering case. However, appearance of impropriety is not a basis for disqualification, and Butson failed to show any prejudice. The district court did not abuse its discretion in denying Butson’s motion for a special prosecutor.

Butson also contended that his statements to police during a custodial interrogation constituted settlement negotiations, or an offer to compromise a claim, and therefore the interview was inadmissible under CRE 408 to prove his guilt. Generally, Rule 408 bars the admission in a criminal proceeding of statements made in connection with the settlement of a civil claim. As Butson acknowledges, his statements to police, even if construed as an offer to compromise, were made during discussions concerning criminal charges, not a civil claim. Moreover, his statements, which he made to a government agent, would be admissible under an exception to the rule. Therefore, the district court did not err in denying his motion to suppress the statements.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.