Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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In an interlocutory appeal, the State challenged a trial court order that granted defendant Jorge Solis’ motion to disqualify the entire Seventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office because his public defender, began working for the DA’s office prosecuting his case. The issue presented here was whether, as Solis argued before the trial court, his attorney’s former representation of Solis constituted “special circumstances” under section20-1-107(2), C.R.S. (2022), requiring not just the attorney’s disqualification, but also disqualification of the entire DA’s Office. Following a half-day hearing, the trial court found that the DA’s Office had a screening policy in place and that it had taken additional precautions to wall the attorney off from Solis’s prosecution. The court thus concluded Solis had failed to establish that special circumstances existed such that “it [was] unlikely that [he] would receive a fair trial.” The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the trial court abused its discretion in granting Solis’s motion. The trial court’s determination that the attorney could potentially deviate from the screening policy in the future was based on his appearance in Mr. Flores-Molina’s case; it was not a determination that the attorney would violate the screening policy in this case or that confidential information from the attorney’s prior representation had not been or could not continue to be adequately screened from the attorneys prosecuting Solis’s case. Because there was no evidence in the record that Solis is unlikely to receive a fair trial, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s order disqualifying the entire DA’s Office. View "Colorado v. Solis" on Justia Law

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Terrel Turner and Christopher Cruse were jointly tried and convicted on charges related to the burglary of a marijuana dispensary. On the second day of trial, Yolanda Cruse, who is Cruse’s wife and Turner’s friend, was arrested and charged with several counts stemming from a hostile encounter she had with the victim advocate and a prosecution witness just outside the courtroom. The trial judge ordered that Mrs. Cruse be excluded from the courtroom for the remainder of trial. The Colorado Supreme Court determined the trial court’s exclusion of Mrs. Cruse from the majority of the trial based on her alleged harassment of the victim advocate and a prosecution witness constituted a non-trivial, partial closure. Although the trial court failed to expressly apply the Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984) test, its findings and the record supported the conclusion that the closure order was justified under Waller and didn’t, therefore, violate defendants’ Sixth Amendment public trial right. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirms that portion of the court of appeals’ judgments concluding that the exclusion constituted a non-trivial, partial closure, and reversed the portion of the judgments reversing the convictions and remanding for a new trial. View "Colorado v. Turner" on Justia Law

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Following a preliminary hearing, a magistrate determined that probable cause existed to believe that A.S.M. had committed the delinquent acts alleged. A.S.M. timely sought review of the magistrate’s probable cause determination. But the juvenile court declined to review the matter on the merits, ruling that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the magistrate’s preliminary hearing finding did not constitute a final order. A.S.M. then invoked the Colorado Supreme Court's original jurisdiction, and the Supreme Court issued a rule to show cause. After review, the Supreme Court held that while only a district court magistrate’s final orders or judgments namely, those fully resolving an issue or claim were reviewable under C.R.M. 7(a)(3), the preliminary hearing statute in the Children’s Code, section 19-2.5-609(3), C.R.S. (2022), specifically permitted review of a magistrate’s preliminary hearing finding. "Therefore, we need not get in the middle of the parties’ tug-of-war over whether the magistrate’s preliminary hearing finding in this case constituted a final order. Instead, we hold that section 19-2.5-609(3) entitles prosecutors and juveniles alike to ask a juvenile court to review a magistrate’s preliminary hearing finding in a delinquency proceeding." View "In re Interest of A.S.M." on Justia Law

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Eduardo Barrera was driving a Jeep SUV eastbound on I-70 with Isaiah Deaner in the passenger’s seat. Trooper Bollen, an officer patrolling the highway, saw the SUV pass by and noted that it was an apparent rental vehicle with Arizona plates. Trooper Bollen testified that he was suspicious because I-70 is a major drug corridor where traffickers frequently use rental vehicles to smuggle contraband, bulk narcotics, people, weapons, and cash. He further testified that he specifically noticed the Arizona plates because Arizona borders Mexico, a main source of bulk narcotics in this part of the country. In this interlocutory appeal of a suppression order, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether a police officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. Under the totality of the circumstances here, the Court concluded the officer lacked such reasonable suspicion. The Court therefore affirmed the trial court’s order suppressing the evidence obtained from the search, and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Deaner" on Justia Law

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Defendant Cheryl Plemmons intentionally spat on two sheriff deputies while they were attempting to determine if she was suicidal. The deputies arrested her for spitting on them, and the prosecution charged her with three counts of second degree assault: one under section 18-3-203(1)(f.5), C.R.S. (2022), and two under section 18-3-203(1)(h). A jury found her guilty of each count. On appeal, Plemmons argued the trial court incorrectly instructed the jury on an element of the offense: the scope of the term “harm” as it related to her intent in spitting on the officers. A division of the court of appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction. Like the courts below, the Colorado Supreme Court held that “harm” as used in subsections 18-3-203(1)(f.5)(I) and (h) encompassed more than just physical harm. "Psychological harm can suffice." However, the Court concluded Plemmons was entitled to a new trial because the trial court’s jury instructions didn’t accurately convey the meaning of “harm” to the jury. Thus, judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part. View "Plemons v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether Colorado's prohibition against forced specimen collection in DUI-related offenses applied to all searches of people suspected of DUI, or only to warrantless searches. A Fort Collins police officer responded to a call about an unauthorized car in a disability parking space. When the officer approached the car, he found Charles Raider sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. The officer noticed various signs of visible intoxication; Raider denied having consumed any alcohol. When the officer asked him to perform roadside maneuvers, he declined. The officer then arrested Raider for DUI and, pursuant to the Expressed Consent Statute, gave him the choice of a breath or blood test. Raider initially didn’t respond, but ultimately, he refused. After learning that Raider had several prior DUI convictions, another officer applied for a search warrant to conduct a blood draw. Again, Raider refused to cooperate, so hospital personnel put him in a four-point leather restraint, and several officers held him down while his blood was drawn. Testing revealed that his blood alcohol content was well above the legal limit. The trial court denied Raider’s pre-trial motion to suppress the results of the blood test, concluding that the Expressed Consent Statute’s prohibition against forced specimen collection does not apply when, as here, a blood draw is authorized by a warrant. Ultimately, the jury found Raider guilty of felony DUI. The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that the statute only contemplated warrantless searches. Therefore, the Court held that the Expressed Consent Statute’s prohibition against forced specimen collection had no bearing on searches executed pursuant to a valid warrant. The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals which held to the contrary. View "Colorado v. Raider" on Justia Law

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The Colorado Supreme Court took the opportunity of this case to clarify what prosecutors had prove to establish a defendant’s identity as the perpetrator of a prior crime when the defendant’s conviction of that prior crime was an element or sentence enhancer of the present offense (e.g., in cases involving a charge of possession of a weapon by a previous offender (“POWPO”) or a charge under the habitual criminal statute). The Court concluded that in order for the prosecution to prove a defendant’s identity in such a case, the prosecution must establish an essential link between the prior conviction and the defendant. "This, in turn, requires the prosecution to present some documentary evidence combined with specific corroborating evidence of identification connecting the defendant to the prior felony conviction." The question thus became whether the prosecution satisfied this standard here and therefore carried its burden of proving that Enrique Gorostieta was convicted of the prior felony alleged in this case. Like the division below, the Supreme Court believed that the prosecution could and should have done more to carry its burden. Nonetheless, under the relatively lenient standard of review that applied to sufficiency of the evidence challenges, the Supreme Court concluded the prosecution presented sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable jury to find that Gorostieta had been convicted of the prior felony at issue here. View " Gorostieta v. People" on Justia Law

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Colorado State Patrol Trooper Christian Bollen, acting on a hunch, initiated a traffic stop on what ended up being a rental car. The vehicle had out of state plates, and because it was a rental, the trooper though the car might be involved in the transportation of illegal narcotics. The driver informed him that she and her passengers were traveling from California to Maryland, but the trooper did not believe that story. Asking the passengers, their respective stories did not match the driver’s. A drug detection dog made no alert on a sniff of the vehicle. Acting on a hunch, the trooper searched the vehicle to find a kilogram of cocaine in the glove box and some fentanyl in a prescription bottle. In this interlocutory appeal brought by the prosecution, the parties agreed that Trooper Bollen performed a lawful traffic stop. The question before the Colorado Supreme Court was whether the district court erred in granting the defendant’s motion to suppress on the ground that Trooper Bollen lacked probable cause to search the vehicle. “Because probable cause to search was measured against an objective standard of reasonableness and cannot be established by piling hunch upon hunch or by ignoring facts that militate against it,” the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Smith" on Justia Law

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The issue this case presented for the Colorado Supreme Court's review centered on the method of calculation employed by the Colorado Department of Corrections (“DOC”) to determine the parole eligibility date for Nathanael Owens, who was serving three consecutive prison sentences. There was no dispute that Colorado law required that Owens’s sentences be treated as a single continuous sentence for purposes of calculating his parole eligibility date. What complicated matters was that one of Owens’s sentences was subject to a statutory provision that rendered him parole eligible after serving 50% of the sentence, while the other two sentences are subject to a statutory provision that rendered him parole eligible after serving 75% of those sentences. The DOC applied the 75% rule to all three of Owens’s consecutive sentences, reasoning that two of them were subject to that rule. But, in so doing, it applied the 75% rule to the sentence that was subject to the 50% rule. A division of the court of appeals nevertheless approved this methodology. Because the division erroneously approved the non-hybrid methodology used by the DOC to calculate Owens’s parole eligibility date, the Supreme Court reversed. However, because the DOC has since recalculated Owens’s parole eligibility date, and because the new calculation was consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion, no further action was required. Accordingly, the Court remanded this case with instructions to simply return the case to the district court. View "Owens v. Carlson" on Justia Law

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While in police custody, during a pause in an interrogation, Isaiah Trujillo-Tucson waited in an interview room with a non-interrogating officer while the interrogating officer was off getting Trujillo-Tucson a soda. The non-interrogating officer was patting Trujillo-Tucson down without pressing for information while Trujillo-Tucson repeatedly initiated mostly casual conversation. Shortly thereafter, Trujillo-Tucson asked, “Am I able to get a phone call? . . . To my lawyer, [E.K.]?” The officer spoke over Trujillo-Tucson during the latter portion of his question to say, “Yeah.” After a brief silence, casual conversation continued. When the interrogating officer joined the two men in the room to continue questioning, Trujillo-Tucson made incriminating statements. After the State charged Trujillo-Tucson with various offenses, Trujillo-Tucson moved to suppress his statements, arguing that questioning should have ceased because he had invoked his right to counsel. The trial court agreed. The State filed an interlocutory appeal of the trial court’s suppression order arguing that Trujillo-Tucson’s question, posed to the non-interrogating officer, was not an unambiguous and unequivocal invocation of his right to counsel. Based on its independent review of the video- and audio-recorded interrogation, the Colorado Supreme Court concluded Trujillo-Tucson’s question about a phone call to an attorney did not constitute an unambiguous and unequivocal request for counsel during the interrogation. Accordingly, the Court reversed the trial court’s suppression order and remanded for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Trujillo-Tucson" on Justia Law