Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Colorado Supreme Court
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In a case before the Supreme Court of the State of Colorado, the defendant, Sir Mario Owens, appealed his convictions for first-degree murder, witness intimidation, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and accessory to a crime. The convictions stemmed from two separate incidents: the Lowry Park shootings, in which Owens was involved, and the subsequent Dayton Street shootings, for which Owens was convicted. The defendant argued that the trial was unfair due to the court's rulings on several issues, including the admission of evidence related to the Lowry Park shootings, the denial of Owens's motions for mistrial, and the limitation on cross-examination and impeachment of the prosecution's key witness. The Supreme Court held that the trial court's rulings were proper and did not constitute reversible error. Consequently, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of conviction. View "People v. Owens" on Justia Law

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In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Colorado, Arnold Roman Martinez stole a bicycle from the garage of C.T. Pursuing Martinez in his car, C.T. pulled in front of Martinez, leading to a collision that damaged C.T.’s vehicle. Martinez was subsequently ordered to pay restitution for the damage to the car as part of a plea agreement in a criminal case. Martinez contested the restitution order, arguing that he did not proximately cause the car damage.The Supreme Court held that the appropriate standard of review for evaluating a district court’s determination of proximate cause for restitution is clear error, not abuse of discretion as had been applied by the lower courts. The court reasoned that the proximate cause inquiry is primarily a fact-based determination, and that trial courts are better situated to resolve such disputes. It also noted that the statutory language and structure suggest that the standard of review should allow for expedient resolution of restitution decisions.Applying this standard, the Supreme Court found no clear error in the district court’s determination that Martinez had proximately caused the car damage. The court determined that C.T.’s actions were foreseeable and not grossly negligent, and that Martinez had participated in the events leading to the collision. Therefore, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision that Martinez was obligated to pay restitution. View "Martinez v. People" on Justia Law

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In the case before the Supreme Court of the State of Colorado, the court had to decide whether Anthony Robert Smith had waived some of the claims he had raised in a pro se Crim. P. 35(c) motion by not pursuing certain claims in later briefings and at a postconviction hearing. The court also had to consider whether counsel could abandon some of a defendant’s pro se Crim. P. 35(c) claims without first obtaining the defendant’s informed consent, and whether abandonment of individual postconviction claims requires a showing of intent to do so.Smith was convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault on a child and promotion of obscenity to a minor. After his conviction was affirmed by the court of appeals, Smith filed a pro se Crim. P. 35(c) motion, asserting several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. After appointed counsel filed a Supplemental Motion for Post-Conviction Relief that did not include some of Smith's pro se claims, the postconviction court found that Smith had waived those omitted claims.On appeal, a division of the court of appeals reversed the postconviction court’s decision, concluding that Smith’s claims were preserved because they were not superseded by counsel’s motion. The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado disagreed and reversed the judgment of the court of appeals.The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado held that Smith abandoned the claims he stopped pursuing. The court also decided that counsel, as the “captain of the ship,” has the authority to make strategic decisions, including which claims to pursue. Therefore, counsel may abandon some of a defendant’s pro se Crim. P. 35(c) claims without the client’s informed consent. The court did not rule on whether abandonment of individual postconviction claims requires a showing of intent to abandon such claims. View "People v. Smith" on Justia Law

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In this criminal case, James Herman Dye was charged with murdering a woman over forty years ago. During pretrial hearings, Dye indicated that he might present evidence suggesting another person, an alternate suspect, committed the crime. The Supreme Court of Colorado clarified that the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure (“Discovery and Procedure Before Trial”) Rule 16(II)(c) requires a defendant to disclose the nature of any defense, including an alternate suspect defense, prior to trial. The Court also clarified that the requirement to disclose the nature of a defense includes identifying any alternate suspects, along with their addresses if they are to be called to testify at trial. However, the Court found that the lower court's order for Dye to disclose "all evidence" related to the alternate suspect defense was overbroad. The Court ruled that the prosecution should conduct its own investigation into any alternate suspect identified. The Court also held that disputes over the admissibility of alternate suspect evidence should be resolved prior to trial. The Court therefore vacated the lower court’s discovery order and directed the lower court to follow the procedures outlined in its opinion. View "People v. Dye" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado affirmed the district court's order to suppress inculpatory statements made by the defendant, John J. Sanders Jr., in a case involving alleged sexual assault on a child. The district court concluded that Sanders's statements were elicited during a custodial interrogation without proper Miranda warnings and were not voluntary. The People appealed, challenging the district court's ruling on custody but failing to sufficiently challenge the court's separate ruling on voluntariness. The Supreme Court affirmed the district court's order, stating that even if they agreed with the People on the issue of custody, they must affirm the district court's suppression order due to the unchallenged finding of involuntariness. View "People v. Sanders" on Justia Law

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In this case, defendant Joseph James Tippet was initially charged with first-degree murder for allegedly shooting and killing his father. However, due to a series of discovery violations by the Eleventh Judicial District Attorney's Office, Tippet's charge was reduced to second-degree murder by the district court as a deterrent sanction. The Supreme Court of the State of Colorado was asked to review this decision.The People (prosecution) had a history of neglecting their discovery obligations, leading to multiple discovery violations in Tippet's case and others. Despite several warnings from various judges, the District Attorney's Office continued to neglect its discovery obligations. As a result, Tippet's defense counsel was unable to effectively prepare for his preliminary hearing.The Supreme Court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by reducing Tippet's charge as a sanction for the District Attorney's Office's consistent neglect of its discovery obligations. The court emphasized the importance of the discovery process in advancing the search for truth and protecting the integrity of the truth-finding process. The court affirmed the sanction as a necessary deterrent to encourage the District Attorney's Office to modify its discovery practices. The court also rejected the People's argument that the district court lacked the authority to reduce the charge as a discovery sanction, explaining that the decision to impose sanctions for discovery violations was within the court's discretion.In conclusion, the court discharged the rule to show cause, upholding the district court's decision to reduce Tippet's charge from first-degree murder to second-degree murder as a deterrent sanction for the District Attorney's Office's discovery violations. View "People v. Tippet" on Justia Law

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On November 18, 2022, Ashleigh Walthour drove her car off a snowy road into some trees. She ran the four or five blocks to her home and called the Aurora Police Department. When the police arrived at Walthour’s home to speak with her, she smelled like alcohol and had slurred speech, dilated pupils, and bloodshot eyes. She admitted to having consumed a shooter of Jack Daniels and was unable to perform voluntary roadside maneuvers. Walthour was arrested and taken to the Aurora City Jail, where she consented to a blood test. The police submitted Walthour’s blood sample to the CBI for processing on November 23. Walthour appeared in court for the first time on January 6, 2023. At that hearing, she notified the court that she would seek the assistance of the Public Defender’s Office. The court set a second hearing for February 6. However, at the second hearing, Walthour explained that she had not qualified for a public defender and would be representing herself. At the same hearing, the State said it had not yet received the blood test results from the CBI but that they “should” have the results “hopefully within the next week or two.” The court set a third pretrial conference for March 7 and directed the prosecution to disclose the test results by February 28 at 5 p.m. The prosecutor did not have any test results to disclose on that date. The trial court announced that it would suppress blood alcohol test results when no trial had been set and the prosecution had not yet received the results of the test from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (“CBI”). A day later, on March 8, the prosecutor received the blood test results from the CBI. The Colorado Supreme Court found Colorado Rule of Criminal Procedure 16(I)(b)(3), which required prosecutors to disclose the results of scientific exams such as blood alcohol tests to defendants “as soon as practicable but not later than [thirty-five] days before trial,” did not support the trial court's preemptive suppression. The matter was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Colorado v. Walthour" on Justia Law

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Two months after an apparent arson left five people dead, the Denver Police Department (“DPD”) had no suspects. They employed an unconventional investigative technique: a “reverse-keyword warrant.” Google disclosed to DPD a list that included five Colorado internet protocol (“IP”) addresses associated with devices that had searched for the location of the fire in a roughly two-week period before it occurred. Based in part on this information, law enforcement eventually charged Gavin Seymour and two others with multiple counts of first degree murder. Seymour moved to suppress the fruit of the warrant, arguing that it lacked probable cause and particularity. The trial court denied Seymour’s suppression motion. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed, finding: (1) under the Colorado Constitution, Seymour had a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his Google search history even when revealed only in connection with his IP address and not his name and that, under both the Colorado Constitution and the Fourth Amendment, he also had a constitutionally protected possessory interest in that same history; (2) Seymour’s Google search history implicated his right to freedom of expression; (3) the warrant at issue adequately particularized the place to be searched and the things to be seized; (4) the warrant required individualized probable cause and that its absence here rendered the warrant constitutionally defective; and (5) law enforcement obtained and executed the warrant in good faith, so the evidence shouldn’t be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. "At every step, law enforcement acted reasonably to carry out a novel search in a constitutional manner. Suppressing the evidence here wouldn’t deter police misconduct." View "Colorado v. Seymour" on Justia Law

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Charles Dorsey was convicted in 1997 of criminal attempt to commit sexual assault in the second degree. As a result, Dorsey was required to register as a sex offender, which he did. Dorsey was obligated to re-register as a sex offender every year. In 2010, Dorsey was charged with a class 6 felony for failure to register as a sex offender. He ultimately pled guilty to a class 1 misdemeanor failure-to-register offense. Dorsey failed to re-register as a sex offender for a second time in 2017. This time, the matter proceeded to a jury trial. The trial court reasoned the prior-conviction provision of subsection (2)(a) was a sentence enhancer that could be proved to the judge in the event of a conviction, not an element of the offense that had to be proved to the jury. After the jury found Dorsey guilty of the substantive charge, the trial court ruled, at the sentencing hearing, that the State had proved the fact of his prior conviction by a preponderance of the evidence. Consequently, it entered a judgment of conviction on a class 5 felony. The Colorado Supreme Court concurred that the legislature intended to make the fact of a prior conviction a sentence enhancer, and that the Constitution did not require the fact of a prior conviction to be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. View "Dorsey v. Colorado" on Justia Law

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Pursuant to a request from Lakewood Animal Control, a deputy with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office (“LCSO”), conducted a welfare check on the animals at Constance Caswell’s residential property in Limon, Colorado, on March 15, 2016. Approximately two weeks later, LCSO deputies executed a search warrant at Caswell’s property. Based on the deputies’ search, the State filed a complaint charging Caswell with forty-three class 6 felony counts of cruelty to animals. Cruelty to animals was generally a class 1 misdemeanor, § 18-9-202(2)(a), but pursuant to subsection (2)(b)(I) of the statute, it was a class 6 felony if the defendant had a prior conviction for that crime. Each of the counts brought against Caswell identified her prior cruelty-to-animals conviction as a fact that elevated the classification of the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony and enhanced the applicable sentence. Before trial, defense counsel moved for bifurcation to prevent the jury from hearing about his client’s prior conviction for cruelty to animals. The trial court denied the motion as moot, however, ruling that the fact of a prior conviction was a sentence enhancer, not an element of the crime, which meant that it didn’t have to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury found Caswell guilty of all forty-three counts. During the sentencing hearing, Caswell conceded that she had previously been convicted of cruelty to animals. The trial court accordingly entered forty-three class 6 felony convictions. It then sentenced Caswell to eight years of probation, forty-three days in jail, and forty-seven days of in-home detention. The Colorado Supreme Court held that where, as was here, a cruelty-to-animals (second or subsequent offense) case (1) includes notice in the charging document of the prior conviction for cruelty to animals and (2) is treated as a felony throughout the proceedings—including in terms of its prosecution in district court (not county court), the right to a preliminary hearing (if eligible), the number of peremptory challenges, and the number of jurors - the Sixth Amendment doesn’t require that the misdemeanor - felony transforming fact in subsection (2)(b)(I) be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. "In sum, there was no error, much less plain error, here. Caswell’s right to a jury trial under the Colorado Constitution was not violated." View "Caswell v. Colorado" on Justia Law