June 27, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant May Not Be Charged Under Aggregated Theft Statutes Because Charging Requirements Changed During Time Period At Issue

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Halaseh on Thursday, August 8, 2018.

Criminal Law—Theft—Aggregated Theft—Evidence—Jury Instructions.

Defendant assisted his father in setting up a joint bank account for depositing his father’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) checks from the Social Security Administration (SSA). A month later, defendant’s father left the United States to live in Jordan and never returned. Though the SSI application and award notice informed defendant’s father that he had to report to the SSA if he left the United States for more than 30 days, he never reported. From January 2008 to January 2011, the SSA deposited checks monthly into the joint account, and defendant withdrew the funds to pay for household expenses. When the SSA realized that defendant’s father had been outside the country for years, defendant confessed to SSA’s agents that it was wrong for him to take the funds. Defendant received a letter from the SSA informing him that $24,494 had been overpaid to his father. Defendant was convicted of a single count of theft of $20,000 or more from the SSA.

On appeal, defendant contended that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed theft. Here, the prosecution presented sufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to find beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant committed theft from the SSA, including evidence that defendant helped his father apply for SSA benefits, set up a joint account with his father, and admissions that he knew retaining the funds after his father left for Jordan was wrong.

Defendant also argued that the court failed to properly instruct the jury (1) on the definition of the word “another” in the theft statute, and (2) on its requirement to find that the “aggregate value” exceeded $20,000 within one of the prescribed units of prosecution. There is no statutory requirement to define “another,” and the SSA’s possessory or proprietary interest in the funds was not a disputed issue in this case. Although the trial court plainly erred when it instructed the jury that it could find defendant guilty of stealing $20,000 or more, the error was harmless because a proper jury instruction would not have changed the jury’s findings.

Defendant also contended that the prosecution failed to prove that he took $20,000 or more within any prescribed unit of prosecution permitted under the theft statutes in effect on the offense dates. The People conceded and the court of appeals concluded that the trial court erred by entering judgment for a class 3 felony theft on the jury’s verdict.

The judgment of conviction for one class 3 felony theft count was vacated and the case was remanded to the trial court to enter judgment of conviction for four class 4 felony theft counts and to resentence defendant accordingly.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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