August 21, 2019

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.

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