July 18, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Jury Properly Instructed on Elements of Theft

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Stellabotte on Thursday, July 14, 2016.

John Arthur Stellabotte is the owner of J&J Towing. After several incidents where J&J towed cars without authorization and charged high fees for return of the vehicle, Stellabotte was charged with six counts of aggravated motor vehicle theft, four counts of theft, and five habitual criminal counts. He was convicted of one count of aggravated motor vehicle theft, two class 4 felony counts of theft, one class 2 misdemeanor count of theft. He was sentenced to 24 years on all felony theft counts and one year on the misdemeanor count, to run concurrently.

On appeal, Stellabotte raised two contentions related to jury instructions, argued that his sentence should be halved because of new legislation reducing the severity of the offenses, and argued the 24-year sentences were grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses. The court of appeals analyzed the jury instructions and found no error; the instructions correctly stated the law despite formatting differences. The court also disagreed with Stellabotte that the trial court erred in using the dictionary definition of “authorization.” The court of appeals found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s definition. However, the court of appeals agreed with Stellabotte that he should receive the benefit of the legislative changes. Because the General Assembly reduced the theft offenses to class 5 felonies, Stellabotte should have been sentenced under the legislative scheme in effect at the time of sentencing.

The court vacated Stellabotte’s sentences and remanded for the court to resentence him in the correct presumptive range. The court emphasized that this decision did not affect the aggravated motor vehicle theft or misdemeanor counts, only the class 4 felony theft convictions. Finally, the court of appeals rejected Stellabotte’s argument that the sentences were disproportionate to the severity of his crimes.

Judge Dailey concurred in part and dissented in part; he would have affirmed the sentences on the theft counts since the incidents occurred when the old sentencing scheme was in effect.

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