Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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Respondent Abdu-Latif Kazembe Abu-Nantambu-El forced his way into the apartment of an acquaintance, where he fatally stabbed a visitor and forced the acquaintance to clean up evidence of the crime. The prosecution subsequently charged Abu-Nantambu-El with numerous offenses, including first degree murder (after deliberation), first degree murder (felony murder), second degree murder, and two counts of first degree burglary. Abu-Nantambu-El proceeded to trial on a self- defense theory. The Colorado Supreme Court determined this case presented a question left unanswered by its holding in Colorado v. Novotny, 320 P.3d 1194: What standard of reversal applied where a trial court erroneously denies a challenge for cause, the defendant exhausts his peremptory challenges, and the challenged juror ultimately serves on the jury? "It is clear that the erroneous denial of a challenge for cause amounts to structural error if it results in an actually biased juror serving on a jury." Consistent with that principle, the Court concluded the erroneous seating of an impliedly biased juror was also structural error and required reversal. "[S]uch an error is not amenable to analysis under a harmless error standard, regardless of the juror's actual bias." View "Colorado v. Abu-Nantambu-El" on Justia Law

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In this case and the two companion cases announced at the same time, Melton v. Colorado, 2019 CO 89, ___ P.3d ___, and Colorado v. McRae, 2019 CO 91, ___ P.3d ___, the Colorado Supreme Court considered multiple issues that lie at the intersection of proportionality review and habitual criminal punishment. In June 2012, Pat Crouch, an undercover agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, received information from a confidential informant that Belinda May Wells-Yates was stealing identity documents from cars. He arranged a meeting with Wells-Yates during which she sold him a birth certificate, a social security card, and a New Mexico driver’s license. Several days later, the Waldo Canyon fire started. Wells-Yates told the agent that she was “chasing the fire” (stealing property from homes that had been evacuated). The agent scheduled another meeting with her during which she sold him stolen property. After that meeting, Wells-Yates was arrested. A search of Wells-Yates and her belongings revealed a bag containing a small amount of methamphetamine, a set of scales, small plastic bags, and other drug paraphernalia. Wells-Yates was charged with multiple crimes, including burglary, and drugs possession charges. In total, Wells-Yates received an aggregate prison term of 72 years. Wells-Yates advanced a proportionality challenge. After conducting an abbreviated proportionality review of the aggregate prison term, the trial court found that it was not unconstitutionally disproportionate. The Colorado Supreme Court held: (1) during an abbreviated proportionality review of a habitual criminal sentence, the court must consider each triggering offense and the predicate offenses together and determine whether, in combination, they are so lacking in gravity or seriousness as to raise an inference that the sentence imposed on that triggering offense is grossly disproportionate; (2) in determining the gravity or seriousness of the triggering offense and the predicate offenses, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively; (3) not all narcotic offenses are per se grave or serious; and (4) the narcotic offenses of possession and possession with intent are not per se grave or serious. Because the court of appeals’ decision was at odds with the conclusions the Supreme Court reached in this case, it reversed judgment and remanded with instructions to return the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Wells-Yates v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Nathan Vigil sought review of the court of appeals’ judgment affirming his convictions of second degree burglary and second degree aggravated motor vehicle theft. The trial court denied Vigil’s for-cause challenge to Juror C.A. but granted the prosecution’s challenge to Juror D.K. At trial, and over defense counsel’s objection, an officer was permitted to opine without qualification as an expert that Vigil’s shoes visually matched shoeprints he photographed at the crime scene. With regard to Vigil’s assignments of error concerning these rulings, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court had not abused its discretion by denying Vigil’s challenge to Juror C.A.; that any error committed in granting the prosecution’s challenge to prospective Juror D.K. would in any event have been harmless; and that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the officer to offer a lay opinion concerning the shoeprint comparison in question. The Colorado Supreme Court determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Vigil’s challenge to Juror C.A.; because granting the prosecution’s challenge to prospective Juror D.K., even if it amounted to an abuse of discretion, did not result in any violation of Vigil’s rights; and because the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the officer’s testimony as lay opinion. Thus, the judgment of the court of appeals was affirmed. View "Vigil v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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At issue before the Colorado Supreme Court was whether respondent Douglas Baker was entitled to additional presentence confinement credit (“PSCC”) than he originally received. Baker was arrested in Florida in 2011 for the 2009 Colorado sexual assault of a child, pattern of abuse, a class three felony. He was then extradited to Colorado where he was booked into the Jefferson County jail on July 15, 2011. He remained in custody for the duration of the case. Baker pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault on a child, position of trust, a class three felony, and, on July 12, 2012, he was sentenced to a term of ten years to life in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The court awarded Baker 364 days of credit for time served and designated him a Sexually Violent Predator (“SVP”). At the sentencing hearing, Baker objected to the SVP finding and told the court that he would file a motion objecting to it. Baker, however, failed to file a motion objecting to his SVP status for over three years, and, in the interim, he never filed a direct appeal. Then in 2015, Baker filed a pro se motion, “Motion to Correct Sentence Pursuant to Crim. P. Rule 35(a).” In it, Baker argued he was not given PSCC for his time in custody in Florida before he was extradited to Colorado. The State agreed Baker was entitled to credit for that time and did not object to the court awarding Baker an additional eighteen days of PSCC. Approximately a year later, Baker filed another pro se motion based on Leyva v. Colorado, 184 P.3d 48 (2008), seeking to vacate his conviction as a sexually violent predator, because the “recent correction of his illegal sentence” meant a collateral attack to his conviction was not time barred. The district court denied Baker’s motion, and Baker appealed. The Supreme Court held that a challenge to PSCC was not cognizable as a claim that a sentence was not authorized by law pursuant to Rule 35(a). Because Baker’s postconviction claim for eighteen days of additional PSCC did not alter his sentence, it did not impact the finality of his original judgment of conviction. Baker’s Rule 35(c) motion, filed more than three years after the date of his conviction, was therefore untimely. View "Colorado v. Baker" on Justia Law

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The relevant charges at issue here were class 4, 5, and 6 felonies that did not carry mandatory sentencing, were not crimes of violence pursuant to section 18-1.3-406, C.R.S. (2019), and were not sexual offenses. It was undisputed that defendant James Rowell was initially ineligible to receive a preliminary hearing on the relevant charges because he posted bond in both cases. The issue before the Colorado Supreme Court was whether the district court erred in denying Rowell's request for a preliminary hearing on one of the two felony charges in case number 18CR1611, and on all five felony charges in case number 19CR15, when he later found himself in custody in both cases because his bonds were revoked. The Supreme Court found that because Rowell was taken into custody on the relevant charges when his bonds were revoked, he was entitled to demand a preliminary hearing on those charges "within a reasonable time." Rowell did not become eligible to demand a preliminary hearing on the relevant charges until months after he was brought before the court for the filing of the information. Inasmuch as Crim. P. Rule 7(h)(1) was silent on the timeframe within which Rowell was required to demand a preliminary hearing on the relevant charges after his bonds were revoked, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether his demand was made “within a reasonable time” after he became statutorily eligible to advance it. View "In re Colorado v. Rowell" on Justia Law

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The State of Colorado filed a delinquency petition against B.B.A.M., charging him with one count of third degree burglary and three counts of criminal mischief. B.B.A.M.’s counsel filed a motion to determine competency. Because the court felt it lacked adequate information to make a preliminary finding regarding B.B.A.M.’s competency, it ordered the Colorado Department of Human Services (“DHS”) to conduct an outpatient competency evaluation. The competency evaluator filed a report in which she concluded B.B.A.M. was incompetent to proceed, determined there was a likelihood of restoring him to competency, and recommended the restoration services she deemed appropriate. Based on the evaluator’s report, the court made a preliminary finding of incompetency. Since neither party requested a competency hearing within ten days, the court made the preliminary finding of incompetency a final determination. Proceedings were suspended, and B.B.A.M. was ordered to receive outpatient services designed to restore him to competency. Following the provision of those services, the court ordered, over his objection, a second competency evaluation to determine whether he had been restored to competency. B.B.A.M. appealed, but the district court upheld the juvenile court’s order. The Colorado Supreme Court determined the relevant statutes did not permit a juvenile court to order a second competency evaluation to determine whether a juvenile has been restored to competency; the district court erred in affirming the juvenile court’s order. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the district court’s order and remanded with instructions to return the case to the juvenile court for a restoration review or a restoration hearing. View "In re Colorado v. B.B.A.M." on Justia Law

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Marcus Robinson was charged with multiple counts of sexual assault at a gathering of co-workers and friends at one of the victims' apartment. The issue his case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on whether the court of appeals erred by concluding a prosecutor's race-based comments in her opening statement at trial constituted reversible plain error. After review of the trial court record, the Supreme Court concluded they did: comments on the contrasting skin tones of Robinson and the victim were improper because any probative value they might have had was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice to Robinson. Furthermore, on the facts presented, the prosecutor’s comments did not rise to the level of reversible plain error because even if obvious, the error did not "so undermine the fundamental fairness of Robinson’s trial as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of his judgment of conviction." The Court reversed the appellate court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Robinson" on Justia Law

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Ruth Williams allegedly stole $10,000 from her employer. She pled guilty to felony theft in exchange for a four-year deferred judgment and sentence. The district court placed her on probation for the deferral period and required that she pay $10,000 in restitution. Roughly three years into her deferred sentence, Williams had only paid about $500. Based on that failure to pay, the district attorney moved to impose judgment and sentence. The district court concluded that Williams had violated the restitution order, so it revoked the deferred judgment and entered a conviction for felony theft. Williams appealed, contending that the prosecution failed to meet its burden to prove that she had the financial ability to pay restitution. Applying Colorado Supreme Court precedent, a division of the court of appeals concluded that the prosecution had no such burden. Instead, if Williams wanted to avoid becoming a convicted felon, she had to prove that she couldn’t pay. The Supreme Court reversed: when a defendant introduces some evidence of an inability to pay restitution. A district court must make ability-to-pay findings pursuant to 18-1.3-702(3)(c), C.R.S. (2019), before revoking a deferred judgment for failure to pay. Furthermore, the Court held the prosecution bore the burden of proving by a preponderance the defendant had an ability to comply with the restitution order without undue hardship to the defendant or the defendant's dependents; and defendant had not made a goof-faith effort to comply. Because Williams introduced some evidence of an inability to pay, the Supreme Court remanded for a new deferred judgment revocation hearing. View "Williams v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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While in a friend’s apartment, Lance Margerum made sexual advances towards E.S. When she rebuffed him, he pushed her onto a bed and groped her. E.S. fought back and promised that she would not tell anyone, and Margerum allowed her to leave. Margerum then invited his sister, T.M., to the apartment to pick up some clothes. When she arrived, Margerum grabbed her, choked her, and punched her. A jury found Margerum guilty of unlawful sexual contact with respect to E.S. and both third-degree assault and felony menacing with respect to T.M. The court of appeals affirmed Margerum’s convictions. E.S. testified at Margerum’s trial while she was on probation for an unrelated offense. The trial court refused to allow Margerum to impeach E.S.’s credibility based on her probationary status. Margerum argued the trial court’s refusal to allow defense counsel to impeach E.S.’s credibility based on her probationary status required reversal. He also argued he could not be convicted of both assault and menacing based on the same conduct. This case those presented two issues for the Colorado Supreme Court's review: (1) whether a witness’s credibility could be impeached based on her probationary status at the time she testifies; and (2) whether Margerum could be convicted of both assault and menacing based on the same conduct. The Court answered both questions yes, but because it concluded the trial court’s error in not allowing defense counsel to impeach E.S. based on her probationary status was harmless, the Supreme Court concluded reversal was not required. View "Margerum v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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A jury found Defendant Paul Rail guilty of sexual assault on a child. In response to a special interrogatory, the jury also found, unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, that Rail committed the offense as part of a pattern of abuse and that the State had proved each of the listed incidents of sexual contact, including “[a]ll of the alleged incidents of sexual contact” testified to by the victim. However, in response to a separate unanimity interrogatory, the jury indicated that these same incidents of sexual contact (excluding one that appeared only on the pattern of abuse interrogatory) were “[n]ot [p]roved.” Rail argued on appeal of his conviction that, under Sanchez v. Colorado, 325 P.3d 553 (2014), this inconsistency required reversal of his conviction for sexual assault on a child as part of a pattern of abuse. After its review, the Colorado Supreme Court disagreed: "Unlike in Sanchez, the jury here returned a unanimous verdict of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, any ambiguity in this verdict created by the jury’s response on the unanimity interrogatory was resolved by individual polling of the jurors, each of whom confirmed their intent to find the defendant guilty of sexual assault on a child as part of a pattern of abuse, and their express findings that the People had proved all the alleged incidents of sexual contact beyond a reasonable doubt." View "Rail v. Colorado" on Justia Law