July 18, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant Charged with Criminal Mischief Entitled to Self-Defense Jury Instruction

On Thursday, January 24, 2019, the Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Coahran.

Criminal Mischief—Affirmative Defense—Self-Defense—Use of Physical Force in Defense of Person.

Coahran and her ex-boyfriend had an argument during which Coahran kicked the ex-boyfriend’s car door, causing damages. Coahran was charged with criminal mischief. She argued in a pretrial conference that she had kicked the door in self-defense. The trial court determined that self-defense wasn’t available for her mischief charge because her use of physical force was directed at physical property rather than a person. Coahran was convicted of criminal mischief and ordered to pay restitution.

On appeal, Coahran asserted that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on self-defense. When an individual uses force to defend herself from the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force, she is allowed to take those actions that are reasonably necessary to do so. Therefore, a defendant charged with criminal mischief may be entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense as an affirmative defense under C.R.S. § 18-1-704(1) where a defendant is charged with a property crime, uses force to defend herself from the use or imminent use of unlawful physical force by another, and takes only those actions that are reasonably necessary to do so, whether those actions are upon the other person directly or indirectly. Here, according to Coahran’s testimony, the ex-boyfriend grabbed her wrist when she tried to walk away. She asked the ex-boyfriend twice to let her go, and he refused. Even though they were in a public parking lot, Coahran worried that the situation would escalate, so she kicked the car door in an effort to get away. Under these circumstances, there was sufficient evidence presented to support a self-defense instruction. Because the trial court didn’t properly instruct the jury on self-defense as an affirmative defense, the prosecution didn’t bear the burden of disproving self-defense, and Coahran was deprived of her right to possible acquittal on that ground. The court’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Coahran also argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the damage amount necessary to sustain her conviction. The prosecution presented a repair shop estimate and the testimony of the ex-boyfriend and a police officer on the amount of damage to the car door. This evidence was sufficient to sustain Coahran’s conviction of felony mischief, and she may be retried on this charge.

The conviction was reversed, the restitution order was vacated, and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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