April 21, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Trial Judge who Witnessed Crime in Courtroom May Have Appearance of Impropriety for Later Related Proceedings

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Roehrs on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Criminal Law—Judge—Recusal—Personal Knowledge—Extrajudicial Source Doctrine— Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11(A)(1)—Appearance of Impropriety—Disqualification.

Roehrs was an interested party in a dependency and neglect hearing at which Judge Cisneros presided. At the hearing, Sergeant Couch testified concerning Roehrs’s presence at the scene of an investigation that he was conducting. During Sergeant Couch’s testimony, Roehrs stood up, walked toward the witness stand, and said, “You’re a liar. I am going to have your job.” Judge Cisneros asked Roehrs to leave the courtroom, which Roehrs did. After Sergeant Couch’s testimony, Roehrs threatened him in the courtroom hallway. Judge Cisneros later called Sergeant Couch and the attorneys into her chambers to discuss what had happened outside the courtroom.

The People charged Roehrs with retaliation against a witness, harassment, and intimidating a witness. Before trial, Roehrs’s counsel moved to recuse Judge Cisneros. Judge Cisneros denied the motion, ruling that Roehrs failed to prove bias or personal knowledge of the disputed facts. Judge Cisneros presided over Roehrs’s criminal trial. Roehrs contested a number of factual issues. A jury found Roehrs guilty of retaliation against a witness and harassment.

On appeal, Roehrs contended that the trial court erred in denying her motion to recuse because she had personal knowledge of disputed facts and was a material witness to Roehrs’s conduct; thus, there was an appearance of bias or prejudice. Judge Cisneros was not a likely material witness. But under Colorado Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 2.11(A)(1), a judge need not be a likely material witness for disqualification to be mandated; all that is required is personal knowledge of the facts that are in dispute. The court of appeals examined the scope of the extrajudicial source doctrine and concluded that although knowledge gained in the course of a judge’s courtroom duties does not normally prevent a trial judge from presiding over subsequent, related proceedings, when a trial judge witnesses all or part of a crime in the courtroom, she has personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute within the meaning of Rule 2.11(A)(1). Here, the judge witnessed part of the crime and thus had personal knowledge of disputed facts. Accordingly, Roehrs’s motion was sufficient to raise an appearance of bias or prejudice and Judge Cisneros’s continued participation in the trial was improper.

The judgment of conviction was reversed and the case was remanded with directions to grant appellant a new trial before a different judge.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.