Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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In May 2014, Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District (“Woodmen Hills”) held an election to fill vacant positions on its board of directors, and Ron Pace was one of the candidates. Several months before the election, a group of Woodmen Hills residents formed Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills (“Alliance”), a non-profit organization headed by Sarah Brittain Jack, to educate Woodmen Hills residents about issues affecting their community. Alliance subsequently undertook efforts advocating Pace’s defeat in the upcoming election, including creating direct mailings to Woodmen Hills residents, and the creation of a Facebook page “sharply critical” of Pace. The issues this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review in this case centered on two questions regarding the meaning of article XXVIII, section 9(2)(a) of the Colorado Constitution. The first called for the definition of “violation” was, and whether section 9(2)(a)’s one-year statute of limitations for private campaign finance enforcement actions was triggered and could extend beyond the dates adjudicated and penalized in the decision being enforced. The second issue called for a decision of whether the attorney fees provision in section 9(2)(a) was self-executing or whether it had to be read together with section 13-17-102(6), C.R.S. (2019), to limit attorney fee awards against a pro se party. With regard to the first question, the Supreme Court concluded the term “violation,” referred to the violation as adjudicated and penalized in the decision being enforced. Accordingly, the division erred in perceiving a possible continuing violation under section 9(2)(a). Therefore, the enforcement action in this case was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. With regard to the second question, the Court concluded section 9(2)(a)’s language stating that “[t]he prevailing party in a private enforcement action shall be entitled to reasonable attorneys fees and costs” was indeed self-executing and that section 13-17-102(6) could not be construed to limit or nullify section 9(2)(a)’s unconditional award of attorney fees to the prevailing party. The Court reversed the trial court’s judgment to the contrary and concluded Alliance and Jack, as prevailing parties, were entitled to an award of the reasonable attorney fees that they incurred in the district and appellate courts in this case. View "Alliance for a Safe and Independent Woodmen Hills v. Campaign" on Justia Law

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After a jury found Kyle Brooks guilty of two class 4 felonies for victim tampering, the trial court adjudicated him to be a habitual criminal based on his prior felony convictions, including his guilty plea to theft from a person. The trial court sentenced him to twenty-four years in prison. Brooks claimed on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court that his prior theft from a person conviction was constitutionally invalid. Therefore, the issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether the trial record established by a preponderance of the evidence whether Brooks understood the elements of theft from a person when he previously pleaded guilty. The Court concluded that it did, and accordingly, held Brooks’ prior guilty plea to theft from a person was constitutionally valid. View "Brooks v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Leo Phillips was charged with possession of a weapon by a previous offender and driving under restraint. Before trial, defense counsel moved to suppress three pieces of evidence: (1) Phillips’s statements inside a police car; (2) his subsequent statements at a police station; and (3) a handgun recovered during a search of his car. The trial court suppressed the police-car statements, but not the police-station statements or the gun. The jury found Phillips guilty as charged. On appeal, Phillips challenged the trial court’s admission of both his police-station statements and the gun. However, for each claim, he relied on an argument he had not made to the trial court. A division of the court of appeals denied him relief in an unpublished opinion, ruling that he had waived the right to advance the two claims of error. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the division that Phillips failed to preserve his appellate claims, but the Court found no waiver occurred. Instead, the Court concluded the trial court did not err in admitting the police-station statements and that the record did not establish that the admission of the gun was plain error. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the division’s judgment, on alternate grounds. View "Phillips v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Detective Paul Patton coerced Matthew Cardman into making a confession, and the prosecution then used that confession as evidence against Cardman to convict him of multiple sex offenses. Defense counsel filed a pretrial motion to suppress Cardman’s statements but neglected to challenge the voluntariness of those statements. Because counsel neglected to do so, the trial court did not rule on it, and a division of the court of appeals declined to review its merits, concluding that Cardman waived it by failing to raise it in the trial court. The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court and reversed: the trial court erred in admitting Cardman’s statements at trial and that the error rose to the level of plain error requiring reversal. Accordingly, the case was remanded to the court of appeals with instructions to return the case to the trial court for a new trial. View "Cardman v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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The court of appeals in this case upheld the trial court’s refusal to allow the State to withdraw from a plea agreement after respondent Christopher Mazzarelli pled guilty. The State sought to withdraw from that plea agreement when the trial court determined a more lenient sentence than the one the parties set forth in the agreement was appropriate. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed, finding that because the statute and the rules governing plea agreements in Colorado, section 16-7-302(2)–(3), C.R.S. (2018), Crim. P. 11(f)(5), and Crim. P. 32(d) allowed the defendant, but not the State, to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial court rejected a sentence concession after accepting the guilty plea, the State could not withdraw from the plea agreement. View "Colorado v. Mazzarelli" on Justia Law

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Petitioner-Appellee Scott Diehl pleaded guilty to three drug offenses in 2005. For each offense, he received a sentence that required him to serve a designated number of years in prison as well as a period of mandatory parole. He began serving his term of imprisonment for those sentences, which ran concurrently, on September 6, 2005. Diehl was released from prison at the discretion of the state board of parole in 2011, and he immediately began serving a five-year period of mandatory parole. Diehl absconded from parole from February 14 to March 28, 2013. He was arrested and returned to prison to serve the remainder of his mandatory parole term incarcerated. During this period of reincarceration, Diehl pleaded guilty in three additional cases arising from the time when he was on parole. He received new sentences that were to run concurrently with his outstanding sentences. In 2016, Diehl filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the district court arguing the DOC erred in using August 6, 2011, the date on which he was first released to mandatory parole, rather than September 6, 2005, the date on which he was first sentenced to prison, to calculate his parole eligibility date. The district court agreed with Diehl, rejecting the DOC’s argument that Diehl’s “sentence to imprisonment” on his original convictions had been discharged when he began serving his mandatory period of parole and was thus no longer relevant to his new parole eligibility date. The district court concluded that a sentence, for purposes of Colorado’s “one-continuous-sentence” rule, was comprised of two components: (1) a period of incarceration and (2) a period of mandatory parole. Although the imprisonment component of the sentence was statutorily discharged when Diehl began serving his period of mandatory parole, the district court noted that the statutory scheme provided Diehl’s overall sentence was not “deemed to have [been] fully discharged” until Diehl “either completed or [had] been discharged by the state board of parole from the mandatory period of parole imposed pursuant to” C.R.S. 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V). Therefore, the district court concluded the DOC was required to calculate Diehl’s parole eligibility date using his first date of incarceration, September 6, 2005. The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court was whether the offender’s original prison sentences should have been included in the newly calculated continuous sentence for purposes of determining a new parole eligibility date. The Court responded in the negative. View "Diehl v. Weiser" on Justia Law

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Two men, one carrying what seemed to be a gun, broke into an unoccupied Colorado Springs home and stole roughly $8,000 in cash and other valuables from a safe in a bedroom closet. As it happened, the homeowner had a motion-activated camera in his alarm clock. The camera captured the burglary, albeit on grainy footage. The homeowner, who owned a video-editing business, enhanced that footage and then shared it with local television news stations, along with an offer of a reward for the “conviction” of the burglars. When the video aired on the news, someone identified the man carrying the gun in the video as the defendant, Kyree Howard-Walker. Howard-Walker was ultimately convicted of first degree burglary and conspiracy to commit first degree burglary, after a two-day trial. On appeal, he argued that his relatively brief trial was riddled with errors that, at the very least, collectively warranted reversal. The court of appeal concluded that those errors did not warrant reversal individually or collectively. In reaching this conclusion, the division adopted a new approach to cumulative error review. The appellate court sought more guideposts and, in so doing, crafted a two-step, multi-factor test based on precedent from federal circuit courts. After applying this new cumulative error analysis, the division determined that Howard-Walker received a fair trial despite the eight errors. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the appellate court erred by supplementing the Oaks v. People, 371 P.2d 443 (Colo. 1962) standard. And under Oaks, the Supreme Court reversed because the cumulative effect of these errors deprived Howard-Walker of a fair trial. Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded for a new trial. View "Howard-Walker v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court’s review centered on whether a trial court abused its discretion in permitting a police officer to testify regarding the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (“HGN”) test without first qualifying that officer as an expert witness under CRE 702 and Venalonzo v. Colorado, 388 P.3d 868 (2017). After review, the Supreme Court concluded that, on the facts of this case, the officer’s testimony concerning the HGN test was expert testimony under CRE 702 and that the district court therefore erred in holding otherwise. However, the Court concluded that on the facts presented here, the court’s error in admitting the testimony was harmless. View "Campbell v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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While on patrol, a police officer heard a man and woman arguing behind the gate of a storage facility. When the officer called dispatch to report the disturbance, he was informed that a call had just come in regarding a possible domestic disturbance involving a man named Alexis Brown at that same location. Seconds later, the yelling stopped, and the officer saw a man walking away from the storage facility; the man was the only visible person in the area. The officer stopped the man and asked his name. When the man gave his name as Alexis Brown, the officer realized that it matched the name given for the possible domestic disturbance. The officer then ran a records check on Brown’s name and found that there was an active warrant for his arrest, at which point Brown was taken into custody; a subsequent search revealed methamphetamine in his pocket. Brown was charged for the methamphetamine possession, not the domestic disturbance. Prior to trial, the court concluded that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initially stop Brown, and it thus suppressed all evidence arising from the encounter. The State filed an interlocutory appeal. After review, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed: the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion that Brown was involved in an act of domestic violence. The matter was remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Brown" on Justia Law

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Defendant Juvenal Onel Garcia was subject to a restraining order from contacting C.G. Almost two years after the issuance of the restraining order, Garcia allegedly attempted to sexually assault C.G. Based on events related to that criminal episode, a jury convicted Garcia of first degree burglary, attempted sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, third degree assault, violation of a protection order, and obstruction of telephone service. Garcia appealed, raising two unpreserved claims: (1) the trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the sexual assault charge; and (2) the trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the force sentence enhancer related to his attempted sexual assault conviction. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court that any error regarding the sexual assault instruction did not require reversal, because Garcia failed to show that any error so undermined the fundamental fairness of the trial itself as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of Garcia’s convictions. Because the Supreme Court resolved this issue based on lack of prejudice, it did not reach the question of whether the obviousness of an error should have been assessed at the time of trial or at the time of direct appeal. The Court also concluded the force sentence enhancer did not include a mens rea requirement, and, therefore, there was no error with respect to that instruction. View "Garcia v. Colorado" on Justia Law