July 23, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Emails Sent from Boston and Received in Baltimore Caused Threats for Safety of People in Colorado

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Chase on Thursday, March 14, 2013.

Felony Stalking—Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Sufficiency of Evidence a Question of Law.

Defendant Jerry Chase appealed the judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding him guilty of three felony counts of stalking and three misdemeanor counts of harassment. He also appealed the sentences imposed. The judgment was affirmed.

From 2002 to 2008, Chase resided in Wapiti Meadows, a low-income housing complex in Grand County, where he met the three named victims: G.B., D.D., and M.G. M.G. and D.D. were husband and wife. D.D. was the former property manager and M.G. was the maintenance supervisor. During his tenancy, Chase frequently complained to all three about his neighbors, the B. family, whom he alleged made noises that disturbed him. In 2008, Mr. B. accused Chase of putting sugar in his gas tank. Chase was charged with criminal mischief, and a restraining order was entered against him. Chase violated the order by banging on the B. family’s well and yelling an ethnic threat at them.

The Wapiti management evicted Chase on October 1, 2008. On the evening of October 6, 2008, Chase (who was in Boston) sent an e-mail to twenty-three recipients, including G.B., M.G., and D.D. The e-mail was obscenity-laced and contained overt threats against the park residents. The following morning, Chase sent a second obscenity-laced e-mail to thirty-four recipients, including G.B., M.G., and D.D. The e-mail contained direct threats against G.B., M.G., D.D., and others. He then sent another threatening e-mail that contained a photo of a man pointing a gun at a judge, followed by three more e-mails containing similar vile language and violent threats. M.G. and D.D. were in Baltimore when they received the e-mails. They returned to Colorado a few days later and were under the impression that Chase was in Colorado, as well.

Chase was charged with three felony counts of stalking under former CRS § 18-9-111(4)(b)(II). The court also instructed the jury on the lesser non-included offense of misdemeanor harassment by computer. The jury convicted Chase of three counts of felony stalking—one for each victim. He also was convicted of three misdemeanor counts of harassment by computer. Chase was sentenced to four years on each of the felony counts, to run consecutively.

On appeal, Chase argued his convictions of felony stalking of M.G. and D.D. must be vacated. He argued there was insufficient evidence to establish that Colorado had subject matter jurisdiction because no part of the offenses against them was committed in Colorado. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The Court looked to CRS § 18-1-201 (state jurisdiction over criminal offenses) in relation to the felony stalking statute. The Court found that under the plain language of CRS § 18-9-111(4)(b)(II) and (c)(II), the elemental conduct of making a credible threat is defined by its result of causing a reasonable person to be in fear for his or her safety or the safety of his or her family or intimates. The question under CRS § 18-1-201 was whether Chase committed at least part of the conduct in Colorado.

Chase argued that because he wrote and sent the e-mails in Boston, and because M.G. and D.D. opened the e-mails in Baltimore, none of the conduct occurred in Colorado. The Court held that the proper question was whether the result of Chase’s conduct (causing a reasonable person to be in fear for his or her safety) occurred, at least in part, in Colorado. This is a question of fact for the jury, and the Court found sufficient support in the record to support the jury’s finding that the threats made by Chase in the e-mails would have caused a reasonable person to be in fear for his or her own safety and the safety of other persons in Colorado.

Chase made a related argument concerning whether, in response to a question from the jury, the trial court should have elaborated on the element of the offense regarding its occurrence in Colorado. The Court found no error in the trial court not elaborating on the elemental instruction, but found its response well within the trial court’s sound discretion. Specifically, the Court found that (1) the jury’s question did not reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of a legal element of the offense; (2) the original instructions properly stated the applicable law and adequately answered the question; and (3) the response of the trial court was essentially as defense counsel requested.

Chase also argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove he made a credible threat as defined in CRS § 18-9-111(4)(c)(II) and to prove he made repeated communications in connection with the threat as required under CRS § 18-9-111(4)(b)(II). The Court disagreed, finding the evidence more than sufficient to find the e-mails, with their implicit and explicit threats, to cause a reasonable person to be in fear for his or her safety or the safety of other persons. It also found that reading the six e-mails in one sitting does not mean they were not repeated communications.

Chase contended that the trial court gave an incorrect mens rea instruction to the jury. The Court disagreed. Because no contemporaneous objection to the instruction was made, it was reviewed for plain error. The instruction tracked the language of CRS § 18-9-111(4)(b)(II) and the Court perceived no error.

Chase argued that CRS § 18-9-111(4)(b)(II) was unconstitutional as applied to him because it violated his First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause rights. The Court disagreed. Speech that contains “true threats” may be regulated by the government. The jury found that Chase’s e-mails were true threats and, based on the Court’s independent review of the record, it agreed.

Finally, Chase argued that because his conduct fell within the ambit of the misdemeanor harassment statute, convicting him as a felon violated his equal protection rights. The Court disagreed. Different statutes proscribing the same criminal conduct with disparate criminal sanctions violate equal protection principles. The two statutes here, however, proscribe different criminal conduct. Specifically the felony stalking statute requires repeated communications in connection with a credible threat, whereas the misdemeanor statute requires only one communication by use of a computer in a manner intended to harass or threaten bodily injury or property damage. The conduct is related, but not identical.

Summary and full case available here.

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