July 20, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Duplicitous Charges Violate Equal Protection Clause Where Underlying Conduct Identical

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Slaughter on Thursday, February 21, 2019.

Equal Protection—Felony Strangulation—Charging Options.

The prosecution charged defendant with second degree assault by strangulation under C.R.S. § 18-3-203(1)(i) for allegedly strangling the victim with his hands. The People later moved to add a new count under the crime of violence sentencing statute, C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A), based on their assertion that defendant used his hands as a deadly weapon. The trial court dismissed the charged sentence enhancer as violating defendant’s equal protection rights. The People filed this interlocutory appeal.

Under the Colorado Constitution, if criminal statutes provide different penalties for identical conduct, a person convicted under the statute with the harsher penalty is denied equal protection unless there are reasonable differences between the proscribed behaviors. A prosecutor charging an accused with felony strangulation has multiple charging options under the Colorado criminal statutes. The crime can be charged under the first degree assault statute, C.R.S. § 18-3-202(1)(g), which requires proof that the accused caused serious bodily injury to the victim.If the prosecution does not want to prove serious bodily injury, it can charge the accused under the second degree assault statute, C.R.S. § 18-3-203. This statute has two charging options, (1)(b) or (1)(i), neither of which would require proof of serious bodily injury. Under (1)(b) proof of use of a deadly weapon is required. Unless charged with a crime of violence sentence enhancer, a strangulation charge under subsection (1)(i) would not require proof of use of a deadly weapon. The penalty available for strangulation charged under (1)(i) if charged as a crime of violence under C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A) is substantially more severe than if an accused is charged under (1)(b), even though both would require proof of use of a deadly weapon.

Though prosecutors have discretion in charging decisions, the prosecution is not permitted to charge an accused in a way that would result in an equal protection violation if the defendant were found guilty and sentenced to a harsher penalty than another accused might receive for identical assault conduct.Here, the combination of the prosecution’s charge against defendant under C.R.S. § 18-3-203(1)(i) and the crime of violence sentence enhancer under C.R.S. § 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A) renders these statutory provisions unconstitutional as applied to defendant. Thus, the prosecution’s motion to charge defendant with a crime of violence sentence enhancer should have been denied, and the trial court did not err.

The order was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Suddenly Hitting Officer’s Motorcycle Does Not Constitute “Threat”

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Denhartog on Thursday, February 21, 2019.

Criminal Law—First Degree Assault of a Peace Officer—Threaten—Prior Acts Evidence—Merger—Lesser Included Offense—Prosecutorial Misconduct.

A motorcycle patrol officer observed defendant speeding and pulled him over. The officer parked about 12 feet behind defendant’s vehicle. As the officer prepared to dismount from his bike, defendant suddenly reversed his vehicle and drove into the motorcycle, pushing the bike backward and causing the officer to fall and sustain minor injuries. Defendant left the scene and broke into an unoccupied apartment, where he damaged the tenant’s belongings and set fire to contraband he was carrying. Defendant was charged with 15 felony, misdemeanor, and traffic offenses. As relevant here, the jury convicted him of first degree assault of a peace officer, two counts of second degree assault, vehicular eluding, first degree criminal trespass, and second degree burglary.

On appeal, defendant argued that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for first degree assault because the prosecution failed to prove he used the vehicle to threaten the officer. “Threaten” means to express a purpose or intent to cause harm or injury. To obtain a conviction for first degree assault of a peace officer, the prosecution had to prove that, by use of a deadly weapon, defendant expressed a purpose or intent to cause injury or harm to the officer or the officer’s property. Here, the act of suddenly hitting the officer’s motorcycle, without more, did not constitute a threat. Accordingly, the evidence was insufficient to sustain the first degree assault conviction.

Next, defendant contended that the trial court erred in admitting evidence under CRE 404(b) of his prior assault of a peace officer. The prior and current incidents were similar enough that the prior act evidence was admissible for the nonpropensity purpose of rebutting defendant’s defense that his conduct was accidental rather than intentional. Thus, the evidence was relevant to establish defendant’s intent to commit assault. The district court did not abuse its discretion.
Defendant also contended that his assault and eluding convictions should be reversed due to prosecutorial misconduct during closing argument. However, the prosecutor did not err in commenting on the strength of defense counsel’s arguments and using the facts in evidence to support his argument. Although the prosecutor improperly appealed to the emotions of the jury and misstated one piece of evidence during his closing argument, the two instances of misconduct were not egregious and did not warrant reversal.

Defendant further contended, the People conceded, and the court of appeals agreed that his two convictions for second degree assault must merge for multiplicity.

Lastly, defendant contended that first degree criminal trespass is a lesser included offense of second degree burglary and therefore these convictions must merge. However, the supreme court has expressly held that first degree criminal trespass is not a lesser included offense of second degree burglary.

The case was remanded to (1) vacate the conviction and sentence for first degree assault and for entry of a judgment of acquittal on that charge; (2) merge the convictions for second degree assault and vacate the conviction entered under C.R.S. § 18-3-203(1)(c); and (3) resentence defendant. The judgment was otherwise affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Jury Instruction that Effectively Told Jury Not to Consider Burden of Proof Erroneous, but Error Not Plain

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Sabell on Thursday, June 14, 2018.

Jury Instructions—Involuntary Intoxication—Other Acts Evidence—Merger—Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act.

Sabell and his girlfriend, the victim, got into an argument one night. When the victim returned to the couple’s home that evening after running errands, Sabell accused her of cheating on him and physically assaulted her. The victim then began audio recording the altercation on her cell phone. Sabell then forced the victim to perform oral sex on him and later broke down her bedroom door after she had locked herself inside. A jury found Sabell guilty of sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, third degree assault, and criminal mischief.

On appeal, Sabell contended that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on his affirmative defense of involuntary intoxication and that this lessened the prosecution’s burden of proof. Before trial, the victim admitted that she had put Seroquel, a drug she had been prescribed, in Sabell’s wine after the sexual assault in an attempt to sedate him. Sabell testified that the victim had put the Seroquel in his drink before the recording began and that he had no memory of any of the recorded events. Although the involuntary intoxication instruction was erroneous because it effectively told the jury not to consider the People’s burden of proof until after it first decided whether Sabell’s intoxication was self-induced, it was not plain error.

Sabell also contended that the trial court gave an erroneous instruction limiting the jury’s consideration of other acts evidence. At trial, the victim, along with the victim’s friend and police officers, testified about four other incidents in which Sabell had been violent toward her or had forced her to have sex. The other acts evidence was relevant as to whether Sabell acted knowingly and voluntarily, and the court properly gave limiting instructions to the jury. There was no error.

Sabell’s contention that the Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act is unconstitutional on its face and as applied to him was without merit.

Sabell further argued, and the People conceded, that his unlawful sexual contact conviction should have merged with the sexual assault conviction at sentencing because they were based on the same conduct. The trial court plainly erred in entering both the sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact convictions.

Sabell also argued, and the People conceded, that the trial court erred in imposing a crime against a child surcharge of $500. The victim here was not a child, and the trial court plainly erred.

The unlawful sexual contact conviction and the crime against a child surcharge were vacated. The case was remanded for the trial court to correct the mittimus. The judgment and sentence were affirmed in all other respects.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: District Court Did Not Err in Finding Assault Occurred Despite Poor Quality Evidence

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Henry on Friday, February 3, 2017. Panel rehearing was granted for the sole purpose of adding a footnote; that opinion is available here.

Tremale Henry finished a prison sentence for violating federal drug laws and was under supervised release for five years thereafter. During his five year supervised release, Mr. Henry was found by the district court to be responsible for two separate assaults with a dangerous weapon. The district court sentenced Mr. Henry to a 24-month prison term followed by six further years of supervised release. Mr. Henry argues that the district court impermissibly relied on hearsay when reaching its judgment.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Mr. Henry’s first assault charge. In finding that Mr. Henry committed this assault, the district court relied on statements from a witness, Candace Ramsey. Ms. Ramsey testified that she saw Mr. Henry lunge at his victim with a small object, but that she could not see exactly what that object was. A probation officer then testified that Ms. Ramsey told him before the hearing that she saw Mr. Henry use a knife. The district court apparently credited this hearsay. Additionally, the district court relied on a surveillance video that showed Mr. Henry make rapid movements towards the victim. Although the video quality was poor and a knife could not clearly visible, the district court found that the reaction of the victim was consistent with a violent assault with a dangerous weapon. The district court found that all of these facts taken together established that Mr. Henry committed the first assault with a dangerous weapon.

The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in its finding regarding the first assault. The Tenth Circuit stated that the usual rules of evidence do not apply in revocation hearings, and that the Supreme Court has allowed hearsay into supervised release proceedings. The Tenth Circuit went on to state that Fed. R. Crim. P. 32.1(b)(2)(C) grants a defendant in a revocation hearing the opportunity to question any adverse witness. Additionally, in United States v. Jones, the Tenth Circuit held that the application of Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) requires a district court to conduct a balancing test to weigh “the defendant’s interests in confronting a witness against the government’s interest in foregoing the witness’s appearance.”

The Tenth Circuit held that neither Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) nor Jones was applicable with regard to the first instance of the assault charge because the witness was available for cross-examination. Ms. Ramsey did appear at the hearing and Mr. Henry had the chance to question her about her hearsay statement. Additionally, Mr. Henry did not provide evidence to establish that his minimal due process rights were violated.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed the second assault charge, which consisted of the stabbing of the victim. The district court relied on out-of-court statements that the victim and the victim’s girlfriend made to a police detective. That detective then relayed the statements to Mr. Henry’s probation officer. Mr. Henry’s probation officer presented these statements at the revocation hearing, but neither the victim, his girlfriend, nor the detective was subject to cross-examination. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Rule 32.1(b)(2)(C) and Jones did apply to this assault charge, and that the district court failed to conduct the balancing test Jones required.

The Tenth Circuit held that the district courts failure to apply the relevant tests was not a harmless error. The Tenth Circuit came to this conclusion because it determined that the district court considered both assault charges when it fashioned its sentence. Therefore, the error was not harmless and the Tenth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court for resentencing.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Promissory Note Void When Issued in Exchange for Leniency in Criminal Trial

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Rademacher v. Becker on Thursday, September 24, 2015.

Settlement Agreement—Promissory Note— Criminal Action—Void Against Public Policy.

Defendant and plaintiff were involved in a 10-year extramarital relationship. During a confrontation, defendant’s wife threw coffee on plaintiff and kicked over the chair she was sitting in. Wife was criminally charged with assault. After negotiating with plaintiff, defendant entered into a settlement wherein plaintiff agreed not to pursue any claims against wife or defendant and to ask the district attorney’s office to offer wife a deferred sentence. In exchange for these promises, defendant executed a $300,000 promissory note payable to plaintiff. At the same meeting where the settlement agreement was signed, plaintiff signed a letter to the district attorney indicating her desire that wife be offered a deferred sentence. Plaintiff later filed suit to enforce the note, and the jury found in favor of plaintiff. Defendant appealed.

An agreement in which money or other valuable consideration is paid in exchange for a crime victim’s efforts to obtain leniency in connection with a criminal charge is void as against Colorado public policy. Here, counsel for both plaintiff and defendant acknowledged that part of the consideration for the settlement payment was the settlement of the pending criminal matter. Because at least part of the consideration for execution of the settlement agreement and promissory note was given in an attempt to hinder or stifle the plenary prosecution against wife, the entire agreement and promissory note are void. The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court to dismiss the action.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Probable Cause Still Existed After Amending Misleading Arrest Warrant so Qualified Immunity Appropriate

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Puller v. Baca on Friday, March 20, 2015.

In the summer of 2009, Detective Baca was investigating a string of robberies by groups of black gang members on inebriated white male victims. After an incident on August 23, 2009, Detective Baca interviewed several people and eventually concluded that Aaron Joel Puller was involved in the August 23 attack. He prepared an arrest warrant for both aggravated robbery and a bias-motivated crime, but he omitted certain details from his interviews, including that certain of his sources could not identify Puller by name and that one of the sources denied that Puller would have assaulted the victims. Puller was arrested, but after watching the interview tapes, Puller’s attorney moved to dismiss the charges. The state court dismissed the charges without a hearing, concluding there was not probable cause to arrest Puller based on the omissions in the arrest warrant.

Puller then sued Baca in federal court under § 1983, alleging false arrest, malicious prosecution, and manufacture of inculpatory evidence. Baca moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which the district court granted. After adding the omitted material to Baca’s affidavit and setting aside false information, the district court found it was reasonable for Baca to believe probable cause existed for Puller’s arrest and granted qualified immunity to Baca on all Puller’s claims. Puller timely appealed.

The Tenth Circuit began its analysis by removing false information from Baca’s affidavit and considering omitted material information. After amending the arrest affidavit accordingly, the Tenth Circuit found ample evidence of a race-motivated crime. Although no one contended Puller actually assaulted the victim, he was part of a group whose motive was intimidate a victim to place him in fear of imminent bodily harm. Puller asserted that the mere act of being part of a group is not sufficient to establish probable cause, but the Tenth Circuit found the interviews proved Puller was more than a stationary object in a law-abiding group—he, with the others, approached the victim based on his race with the intent to attack and rob the victim.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s summary judgment and grant of qualified immunity to Detective Baca.

Colorado Supreme Court: Assault Sentence to be Consecutive with Any Other Sentence Being Served

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Diaz on Monday, April 27, 2015.

Sentencing—Statutory Interpretation—CRS § 18-3-203(1)(f).

Defendant was convicted of second-degree assault of a detention center employee in two separate cases. Trial for the second assault preceded trial for the first assault. Defendant finished serving his original sentence before trial in either case. The trial court held that CRS § 18-3-203(1)(f) requires that the sentence for the first assault be served consecutively to the sentence for the second assault. The court of appeals reversed on the ground that mandatory consecutive sentencing applies only to the sentence a defendant is serving at the time of the assault. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, holding that CRS § 18-3-203(1)(f) requires a consecutive sentence if, at the time of sentencing, the defendant is serving any other sentence.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Private Employee Working at Public Building Not Considered “Public Official or Employee” in Criminal Context

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Moore on Thursday, June 6, 2013.

Impeding a Public Official or Employee—Private Employer—CRS § 18-9-110(2).

Defendant appealed the judgment of conviction entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of impeding a public official or employee in a public building. The judgment was vacated.

Defendant, an attorney, injured a 61-year-old woman security guard when he forcibly passed through the security checkpoint at the Denver City and County Building. The victim was employed by a private security company.

The People argued that the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss was rendered moot by the subsequent trial and was no longer reviewable. However, the trial court construed the statute to permit defendant’s prosecution under the statute as a matter of law. The jury was bound by this determination. Therefore, the jury’s verdict did not render moot the denial of defendant’s motion to dismiss or preclude him from challenging his conviction on appeal.

Defendant contended that his judgment of conviction should be vacated because the victim was not a “public employee,” which is a prerequisite to establishing criminal liability under the statute. Because the victim was not a public employee, but was employed by a private security company, defendant’s conviction under CRS § 18-9-110(2) was vacated.

Summary and full case available here.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defendant Violated Terms of Bonds When He Spat in the Face of a Police Officer

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Luna, Jr. on Thursday, May 9, 2013.

Assault—Evidence—Violation of Bond—Jury Questions.

Defendant Arturo Luna, Jr. appealed the trial court’s judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding him guilty of second-degree assault (in jail/bodily fluids), two counts of violating his bond conditions, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The judgment was affirmed.

When questioned by police regarding an alleged assault, Luna acted aggressively, spat in the direction of the officers, and then spat in the face of one of the officers. Luna was found guilty of all charged counts.

On appeal, Luna asserted that insufficient evidence existed to support his convictions of violating the terms of his bonds, because the prosecution did not present evidence to prove that his bonds were in effect at the time of the events giving rise to his conviction. Luna posted bonds in relation to two charges, one on August 28, 2009 and another February 15, 2010. The conditions of both bonds prohibited any further violations of the law. The prosecution was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the terms of the bonds were in effect at the time of the alleged illegal conduct. The prosecution presented circumstantial evidence, which when taken in the light most favorable to the prosecution, established that the bonds were in effect at the time of the charged conduct. Accordingly, the jury could reasonably infer that the bonds continued to be in effect at the time of the charged conduct.

Luna also argued that the trial court erred by issuing a misleading answer to jury questions, which asked whether the bonds were in effect on the date of the offense. In response to the jury’s question as to whether the bonds were still in effect, the trial court correctly declined to address the merits of the questions, and instead referred the jury back to the elements of each charge. Accordingly, the trial court did not commit plain error in responding to the jury’s questions.

Luna further argued that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction of second-degree assault, because the prosecution did not prove that he was “lawfully confined in a detention facility” at the time of the assault. CRS § 18-3-203(1)(f.5) applies to an individual lawfully confined in a vehicle who is lawfully held in custody and whose victim is a law enforcement officer. Therefore, the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to support Luna’s conviction for second-degree assault.

Summary and full case available here.