May 25, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trial Court Committed Plain Error by Not Giving Unanimity Instruction in Forgery Case

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Wester-Gravelle on Thursday, June 28, 2018.

Forgery—Jury Instructions—Unanimity Instruction—C.R.C.P. 12(b).

Defendant worked as a certified nursing assistant for Interim Healthcare (Interim), which provides in-home care to patients. In 2015, Interim assigned defendant to care for Moseley five days a week for two hours each day. Even though defendant had failed to show for her shift for three weeks, she had submitted weekly shift charts to receive payment for the preceding three weeks. The shift charts showed Moseley’s purported signatures acknowledging that defendant had arrived for her shifts. A jury convicted defendant of forgery, and the court sentenced her to two years’ probation.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred when it failed, on its own motion, to require the prosecution to elect a single forged shift chart as the basis for the conviction or to give a modified unanimity instruction. The People argued that defendant waived this issue by failing to object to the information under Crim. P. 12(b)(2) and (3), which requires a defendant to raise defenses or objections to an information and complaint within 21 days following arraignment. Colorado law is clear that Rule 12(b) does not require a defendant to object when the error stems from circumstances that are not apparent from the charging document. Here, on its face the charge does not evidence a defect, so Crim. P. 12(b)(2) does not apply. The unanimity issue arose only after the prosecution decided to introduce three different written instruments for the period charged. Therefore, defendant did not waive her claim.

The court of appeals determined that the prosecution’s evidence presented a reasonable likelihood that the jurors may have disagreed on which shift chart constituted the forgery charged. Thus, the court should either have (1) required the prosecution to elect an act on which it relied for a conviction, or (2) instructed the jury that to convict, it had to unanimously agree on the act committed or unanimously agree that defendant committed all of the acts. This error was substantial and obvious.

The conviction was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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