Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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Derek Rigsby was charged with three counts of second degree assault for smashing a glass into someone’s face during a bar fight. The three charges represented alternative methods of committing the same crime. The jury found Rigsby guilty as charged on the first two counts: (1) second degree assault (acting with intent to cause bodily injury and causing serious bodily injury); and (2) second degree assault (acting recklessly and causing serious bodily injury with a deadly weapon). On the third count, second degree assault (acting with intent to cause bodily injury and causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon), the jury returned a guilty verdict on the lesser included offense of third degree assault (acting with criminal negligence and causing bodily injury with a deadly weapon), a misdemeanor; in so doing, the jury effectively acquitted Rigsby of the charged offense on that count. Concluding that the guilty verdicts for second degree assault, and the guilty verdict for third degree assault, were mutually exclusive, a division of the Colorado court of appeals reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded for a new trial. On appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court, the state conceded the judgment of conviction entered by the trial court was defective, but argued the error was one of multiplicity, not mutually exclusive verdicts, and that it should have been corrected by merging the three guilty verdicts. To this, the Supreme Court agreed. The matter was remanded to the court of appeals with instructions to return the case to the trial court to merge all of the convictions into a single conviction for second degree assault and to leave in place only one sentence (one of the two concurrent five-year prison sentences imposed). View "Colorado v. Rigsby" on Justia Law

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After the victim’s murder in this case, his sister-in-law discovered a peculiar microcassette among his belongings. On that cassette was a recording of a potentially incriminating voicemail message. A police detective later testified at trial that the message featured a voice like that of defendant Daniel Gonzales, whom the detective had interviewed while investigating the murder. Over Gonzales’s objection, the court admitted the recorded message into evidence at Gonzales’s trial. The detective was not present when the recorded statements were made, and neither he nor anyone else testified about the reliability of the recording process. Even so, after considering the recording and other evidence, a jury found Gonzales guilty of, among other things, first degree murder. After review of Gonzales' arguments on appeal, the Colorado Supreme Court held that in the absence of evidence suggesting that a proffered voice recording has been altered or fabricated, a proponent may authenticate a recording by presenting evidence sufficient to support a finding that it is what the proponent claims. "Once this prima facie burden is met, authenticity becomes a question for the factfinder, in this instance, the jury." The Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the voicemail, and therefore affirmed the court of appeals. View "Gonzales v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Steven Thompson was a real estate developer and sole member and manager of SGD Timber Canyon, LLC (“Timber Canyon”), a real estate company that held an interest in a number of undeveloped lots in Castle Rock, Colorado. To buy those properties, Timber Canyon initially obtained a $11.9 million loan from Flagstar Bank. The properties went into foreclosure in October 2009. In February 2010, Timber Canyon filed for bankruptcy; Flagstar Bank sought relief from the automatic stay to allow it to proceed with the foreclosure. In the spring of 2010, Thompson met John Witt (“John”), who had worked in the construction industry in Denver but wanted to become a real estate developer. John eventually began working with Thompson and signed a letter of intent indicating that John would eventually obtain an ownership interest in Thompson’s company. Shortly thereafter, and without disclosing the fact that the Timber Ridge properties were in foreclosure and subject to a forbearance agreement, Thompson obtained an “investment” from John’s parents, Thomas and Debra Witt (“the Witts”). Ultimately, the Witts agreed to increase their initial $400,000 investment to $2.4 million. At no point did Thompson disclose to the Witts that Timber Canyon's properties were already highly leveraged; the company was in bankruptcy, the properties were in foreclosure, and the properties had been valued at only $6.75 million (an amount significantly less than the $31 million value that Thompson had represented to the Witts during negotiations). When the Witts’ note ultimately came due in the winter of 2011, Thompson defaulted. The Witts filed a civil lawsuit against him and contacted law enforcement. Thereafter, the State charged Thompson with two counts of securities fraud and one count of theft. A jury convicted Thompson on all counts, and the court sentenced him to the Department of Corrections for twelve years on each of the securities fraud counts, to be served concurrently, and eighteen years on the theft count, to be served consecutively to the securities fraud counts. As pertinent here, Thompson argued on appeal: (1) because the note at issue was not a security, insufficient evidence supported his securities fraud convictions; (2) the trial court erred by tendering an incorrect jury instruction regarding the meaning of “security”; and (3) his theft conviction had to run concurrently with his securities fraud convictions. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review was whether: (1) the promissory note at issue was a security under the "family resemblance" test; (2) any error in the jury instruction defining “security” was not plain; and (3) consecutive sentences were permissible because different evidence supported defendant Steven Thompson’s securities fraud and theft convictions. Finding the note at issue was indeed a security under Colorado law, and no other reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed Thompson's convictions. View "Thompson v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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On the third day of Gregory Fisher’s trial for five counts of sexual assault on a child, and after the prosecution had presented the majority of its case, the prosecution moved to amend the date range of the charged offenses. The proposed amendment expanded the date range for the charged offenses by approximately six weeks from the original complaint and information. The trial court granted the motion over defense counsel’s objection. The jury ultimately found Fisher guilty on all five counts. On appeal, Fisher contended the amendment prejudiced his right to present his defense. A divided Colorado court of appeals disagreed with this contention and affirmed conviction, holding that the amendment was not one of substance and did not prejudice Fisher's substantial rights. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed, holding that while expanding the date range does not automatically prejudice a defendant’s substantial rights, under the totality of the circumstances of this case, the mid-trial amendment here prejudiced Fisher’s substantial right to fully prepare and present his alibi defense. Judgment was reversed, the conviction vacated, and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Fisher v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Defendant Sheila Monroe argued that she stabbed a fellow bus passenger in the neck out of self-defense. She asserted her legal authority to do so without first retreating to a place of no escape. Yet, during the closing arguments of Monroe’s trial, the prosecution repeatedly argued that Monroe didn’t act reasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat. Although the trial court admonished the jury that Monroe didn’t have a duty to retreat, it instructed the jury that it could consider Monroe’s failure to retreat as relevant to whether she actually believed that she faced an imminent use of unlawful force. The jury found Monroe guilty of first degree assault and attempted first degree murder. Monroe appealed, arguing that because she had no duty to retreat the trial court should not have permitted any argument regarding her failure to do so, even if it was ostensibly directed at undermining the reasonableness of her claim of self- defense. A division of the court of appeals reversed, concluding the prosecution's arguments impermissibly imposed on Monroe a duty to retreat. The matter was remanded for a new trial. The Colorado Supreme Court addressed the question the court of appeals did not address in its opinion: the prosecution could not argue that a defendant acted unreasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat from an encounter. Thus, the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution’s arguments regarding Monroe’s failure to retreat. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals' judgment on different grounds, reversed Monroe’s judgment of conviction, and remanded this case for a new trial. View "Colorado v. Monroe" on Justia Law

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In this tragic case involving a charge of child abuse resulting in death, the issue presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether the defendant Sandra Archuleta was entitled to a modified unanimity instruction requiring jurors either unanimously agree that she committed the same act or acts underlying the child abuse charge or that she committed all of those acts. The prosecution charged and tried this case on the theory that Archuleta had committed the offense at issue by engaging in a single criminal transaction resulting in the child’s death. In light of the prosecution’s theory, the Supreme Court found no reasonable likelihood that the jurors disagreed on which specific act caused the child’s death, therefore, Archuleta was not entitled to a modified unanimity instruction here. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals judgment to the contrary, and remanded for consideration of Archuleta’s remaining contentions on appeal. View "Archuleta v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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On March 10, 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis declared a disaster emergency pursuant to the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since that time, the Governor relied on his authority under the Act to issue a wide range of executive orders suspending certain statutes, rules, and regulations in an effort to prevent further escalation of the pandemic and mitigate its effects. Among these was Executive Order D 2020 065 (“EO 65”), which (1) suspended the operation of certain statutes governing the ballot initiative process that require signature collection to take place in person; and (2) authorized the Secretary of State to create temporary rules to permit signature gathering by mail and email. Petitioners filed this lawsuit against Governor Polis and Secretary of State Jena Griswold, seeking a preliminary injunction against enforcement of EO65 and a declaratory judgment finding the Order unconstitutional under the Colorado Constitution and unauthorized under the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act. After ordering expedited briefing, the district court held a remote hearing via WebEx on May 22. In its May 27 Order, the district court concluded that (1) petitioners had not established the necessary factors outlined in Rathke v. MacFarlane, 648 P.2d 648 (Colo. 1982), to obtain a preliminary injunction; and (2) petitioners had not established an entitlement to declaratory relief under C.R.C.P. 57. The court also found that the petitioners’ claims against the Secretary were not ripe because she had not yet promulgated the temporary rules that EO 65 had authorized. The Colorado Supreme Court determined Article V, section 1(6) of the Colorado Constitution required ballot initiative petitions be signed in the presence of the petition circulator. "That requirement cannot be suspended by executive order, even during a pandemic." Judgment was therefore reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Ritchie v. Polis" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Supreme Court issued a rule to show cause in two cases out of Gilpin County, hoping to provide guidance on whether a trial court could grant the prosecution’s contested request for a continuance with a tolling of the statutory speedy trial period based on a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. In "Lucy," the prosecution has charged Maurice Lucy with criminal mischief, a class 2 misdemeanor. Lucy pled not guilty on June 12, 2019, but subsequently requested a continuance of his trial on October 9, 2019. As a result, his six-month speedy trial period was set to expire April 9, 2020. The county court scheduled his jury trial to commence on March 17, 2020, within the speedy trial deadline. In Meresa, the prosecution charged Desta Meresa with violation of a criminal protection order and unlawful sexual contact, both class 1 misdemeanors. Meresa pled not guilty on October 9, 2019, which meant that his six-month speedy trial period was set to expire on April 9, 2020. The county court scheduled Meresa’s jury trial to commence on March 17, the same day Lucy’s case was scheduled for trial. On March 16, 2020, the day before both cases were scheduled for trial, the Chief Judge of the First Judicial District issued an administrative order requiring that all jury trials set in the district through May 1, 2020, be vacated unless there were exigent circumstances presented or speedy trial constraints. The administrative order explained that this drastic measure was necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the Chief Judge’s order, the county court vacated the trials in the two cases at issue. The prosecution immediately filed a motion to continue and requested a tolling of the speedy trial period in each case. It relied on section 18-1-405(6)(g)(I) C.R.S. (2019), which required the tolling of the speedy trial period for up to six months under certain circumstances when the court grants a continuance at the prosecution’s request without the defendant’s consent. The Supreme Court held that, absent the defendant’s consent, section 18-1-405(6)(g)(I) authorized a trial court to grant the prosecution a continuance with a tolling of the speedy trial period for up to six months if the prosecution established that: (1) as a result of a public health crisis, evidence material to its case is unavailable; (2) it has exercised due diligence to obtain that evidence; and (3) there are reasonable grounds to believe that the unavailable evidence will be available on the new trial date. Because the county court erred in these two cases, the decisions reversed and matters remanded for further proceedings. View "In re Lucy & Meresa" on Justia Law

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Colorado has long followed the no-duty-to-retreat rule in self-defense cases. During the closing arguments of Shiela Monroe’s trial, the prosecution repeatedly argued that Monroe didn’t act reasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat. Although the trial court admonished the jury that Monroe didn’t have a duty to retreat, it instructed the jury that it could consider Monroe’s failure to retreat as relevant to whether she actually believed that she faced an imminent use of unlawful force. The jury found Monroe guilty of first degree assault and attempted first degree murder. Monroe appealed, arguing that because she had no duty to retreat the trial court should not have permitted any argument regarding her failure to do so, even if it was ostensibly directed at undermining the reasonableness of her claim of self- defense. A division of the court of appeals reversed Monroe's convictions. The appellate court abstained from deciding whether it was ever proper to argue that a defendant's failure to retreat undermines the reasonableness of a defendant's self-defense claim, but it concluded the prosecution's arguments impermissibly imposed on Monroe a duty to retreat and remanded for a new trial. After review, the Colorado Supreme Court held the prosecution could not argue a defendant acted unreasonably in self-defense because she failed to retreat from an encounter. Thus, the trial court erred by permitting the prosecution’s arguments regarding Monroe’s failure to retreat. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals on different grounds. Monroe’s conviction was reversed and the matter remanded for a new trial. View "Colorado v. Monroe" on Justia Law

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In response to high-profile mass shootings in the state, the Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the Aurora movie theater shooting in 2012. In both attacks, the shooters used large-capacity ammunition magazines. In response to the shootings, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB 1224 to prohibit the same, transfer or possession of any "large-capacity magazine." Plaintiffs Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (a Colorado nonprofit organization), the National Association for Gun Rights (a Virginia nonprofit organization), and John Sternberg, challenged this law as an infringement on the right to bear arms - not under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but under article II, section 13 of the Colorado Constitution. They argued that HB 1224 therefore operated to ban practically all detachable magazines, violating Coloradans' state constitutional right to bear arms in defense of home, person or property. To this, the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed, concluding Plaintiffs' interpretation of the definition of "large-capacity magazine" was inconsistent with the provision's plain text because it ignored the narrowing language, "designed to be readily converted to accept[] more than fifteen rounds of ammunition." The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that HB 1224 violated the state constitutional right. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the court of appeals. View "Rocky Mountain Gun Owners v. Polis" on Justia Law