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Cases of Note

Courts presume that the General Assembly is aware of court decisions that construe state statutes or the constitution. The OLLS will update this web page quarterly to notify the General Assembly of such court decisions. Cases that may be of particular interest because they meet certain criteria have been summarized and are listed below in chronological order. Summaries for cases older than a year are available in an archive.

 

 

Korean New Life Methodist Church v. Korean Methodist Church of the Americas, Jin Hi Cha, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 18CA1149 (February 6, 2020)

Holding: Neutral principles of law, rather than the polity approach, should be used to resolve whether a local church submitted to the authority of its national denomination and thus whether the local church or the national denomination can control disposition of church property.

Case Summary: A local church incorporated as an independent, nonprofit corporation. Later, the board of directors passed a resolution stating that the church "shall join" a national denomination. The denomination's rules required church property to be registered with the denomination and prohibited property transfers without prior approval. But the local church never amended its articles of incorporation to submit to the control of the denomination or its rules and never registered its property with the denomination.

Eventually, the local church sold its original property and purchased new property without the denomination's permission or approval; the deeds conveying the property did not mention the denomination and the property was titled in the name of the local church. A faction of the local church's board filed a declaration judgment action to require the local church to submit to the denomination's authority, including regarding disposition of the property. 

Applicable United States Supreme Court case law construing the first amendment to the United States constitution indicates that courts should not attempt to resolve disputes concerning church doctrine (the so-called "polity" approach), including internal church governance. On the other hand, courts should apply so-called "neutral principles" of law to resolve non-doctrinal issues, even those that require a determination regarding whether a local church has submitted to the authority of a denomination. The issue before the trial court was whether the "polity" approach or the "neutral principles" of law should be applied to the question of whether a local church submitted to the authority of church denomination.

The Colorado Supreme Court, in Bishop & Diocese of Colo. v. Mote, 716 P.2d 85 (Colo. 1986), upheld application of the neutral principles approach in holding that a local church had submitted to a denomination, and thus that the denomination controlled the property in question. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's application of the neutral principle approach in finding that the local church never submitted to the denomination and thus continued to be able to control disposition of the local church's property. (For more information, contact Thomas Morris.)

 

 

People v. Viburg, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 17CA1056 (January 16, 2020)

Holding: Prior convictions are elements of felony DUI that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Case Summary: Police arrested Viburg for suspected DUI.  He was charged with felony DUI based on the allegation that he had three or more previous convictions for driving while ability impaired (DWAI) or DUI.

Before trial, Viburg moved for a ruling that his alleged prior convictions were elements of the offense that the prosecutor must prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the prosecutor needed only to prove the prior convictions to the judge by a preponderance of the evidence.

At trial, a jury convicted Viburg of DUI and careless driving. The judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that Viburg had three prior convictions for DWAI or DUI. Based on that finding, the court elevated Viburg’s misdemeanor DUI conviction to a class 4 felony.

The appeals court explicitly repudiates People v. Gwinn, 2018 COA 130, and People v. Quezada-Caro, 2019 COA 155. The court held that prior convictions are elements of felony DUI, and therefore, must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. A felony is a much more serious matter than a misdemeanor, with more procedural requirements and more serious legal collateral consequences. Therefore, a statute that changes a misdemeanor to a felony does more than increase the penalty for a crime, so it does not fit within any exception to the constitutional requirement that each element of a crime must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. And the statute requires prosecutors to plead the prior offenses, so the General Assembly intended the prior offense to be an element of felony DUI. (For more information, contact Jery Payne.)

 

 

Williams v. Elder, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 18CA1987 (November 14, 2019)

Holding: A plaintiff claiming age discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act (CADA) may not seek compensatory damages because section 24-34-405 (2) and (3)(g), C.R.S., limits the remedies for age discrimination to reinstatement, hiring, back pay, front pay, and other equitable relief only. Such a plaintiff may seek front pay because front pay is an equitable remedy and is not barred by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act (CGIA). A plaintiff claiming retaliation under the CADA may seek both front pay and compensatory damages because both remedies are equitable remedies that are not barred by the CGIA and because section 24-32-405 (8)(g), C.R.S., exempts CADA claims for compensatory damages from the CGIA whether the claims are made against the state itself, a state agency, or a political subdivision of the state.

Case Summary: A former employee of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office (EPSO) filed CADA claims against EPSO for age discrimination and retaliation and sought front pay and compensatory damages for both claims. EPSO filed a motion to dismiss the claims on the grounds that compensatory damages and front pay are legal remedies that lie or could lie in tort and are barred by the CGIA. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that front pay is an equitable remedy not barred by the CGIA and that amendments made to the CADA in 2013 clarified that CADA claims for compensatory damages are not barred by the CGIA.

On appeal, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals first held that the plain language of CADA, specifically section 24-34-405 (2) and (3)(g), C.R.S., limits the remedies for age discrimination to reinstatement, hiring, back pay, front pay, and other equitable relief only and that plaintiff therefore could seek front pay, but not compensatory damages, for his age discrimination claim. Turning to the plaintiff's retaliation claim, the court of appeals first acknowledged that another division of the court of appeals had, in Houchin v. Denver Health, 2019 COA 50M, held that the CGIA bars CADA claims for compensatory damages asserted against political subdvisions of the state because: (1) compensatory damages are not an equitable remedy and (2) Section 24-34-405 (8)(g), C.R.S. exempts a CADA claim for compensatory damages from the CGIA only when the claim is made against "the state", meaning the state of Colorado or an agency of the state of Colorado, and not when the claim is made against a political subdivision of the state. 

The court of appeals disagreed with the Houchin court, holding that the CGIA does not bar the plaintiff from seeking compensatory damages for retaliation because: (1) the compensatory damages allowed under the CADA do not relieve tort-like personal injuries, are merely incidental to the CADA's primary purpose of ending discrimination, and therefore do not lie in tort and are not subject to the CGIA and (2) the word "state", as used in section 24-34-405 (8)(g), C.R.S., refers to all state entities able to seek immunity under the CGIA, including political subdivisions of the state. The decision creates a conflict in the court of appeals as to whether a CADA claim for compensatory damages that is made against a political subdivision of the state is barred by the CGIA. (For more information, contact Megan Waples.)

 

 

People v. Hernandez, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 17CA0775 (July 25, 2019)

Holding: A defendant has a right to be present at a restitution hearing.

Case Summary: Defendant was convicted of first degree assault for stabbing the victim. The trial court imposed a sentence to the custody of the Department of Corrections and gave the prosecutor sixty days to file a notice of restitution. The prosecutor timely sought restitution to compensate the Crime Victim Compensation Fund. Defense counsel appeared at the restitution hearing without defendant. The hearing went forward and the trial court awarded the amount requested. Defendant appealed the decision arguing the trial court erred by proceeding with the restitution hearing in his absence. The Court of Appeals reasoned that Colorado Rule of Criminal Procedure 43(a) and both the United States and Colorado Constitutions guarentee the right of a criminal defendant to be present at all critical stages of the proceeding. Sentencing is considered a critical stage of a criminal proceeding and since restitution is a part of the sentencing process, the Court of Appeals held the defendant had a right to be present at the restitution hearing. The Court vacated the restitution order and remanded the case. (For more information, contact Shelby Ross.)

 

 

People v. Mazzarelli, Colorado Supreme Court No. 16SC546 (July 1, 2019)

Holding: The statute and rules governing plea agreements require the trial court to exercise its independent judgment in deciding whether to accept or reject sentence concessions in the agreement and allow the defendant, but not the prosecution, to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial court rejects a sentence concession after the defendant has pled guilty.

Case Summary: The People (prosecution) charged defendant Christopher Mazzarelli with knowing or reckless child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury to his infant son, a class 3 felony. Defendant and the prosecution agreed to a plea agreement under which defendant pled guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, a class 4 felony, and the prosecution agreed to dismiss the original charge. The plea agreement also included a sentence stipulation that the defendant would receive a prison sentence within the extraordinary risk crime range of 2 to 8 years.

The trial court accepted the defendant's guilty plea but rejected the stipulated 2 to 8 year prison sentence and instead sentenced defendant to supervised probation. The trial court also rejected the prosecution's request to withdraw from the plea agreement. The prosecution appealed, arguing that it should have been allowed to withdraw from the plea agreement because the trial court had substantially modified the terms of the agreement, and the Colorado Court of Appeals (court of appeals) affirmed. The Colorado Supreme Court (supreme court) granted certiorari to determine whether "the court of appeals erred in upholding the trial court's actions as a matter of law and finding that it could sentence the defendant outside the stipulated sentencing range contained in a plea agreement and accepted by all parties."

The supreme court vacated the court of appeals' decision in its entirety because it did not agree with its reasoning, but, like the court of appeals, upheld the trial court's decision not to allow the prosecution to withdraw from the plea agreement. The supreme court held that "the statute and rules [governing plea agreements in Colorado] (1) require the trial court to exercise its independent judgment in deciding whether to accept or reject sentence concessions in a plea agreement, and (2) allow the defendant, but not the People, to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial court rejects a sentence concession after the defendant has pled guilty." In support of its holding, the supreme court quoted both language in section 16-7-302 (3), C.R.S., and Colorado Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 (f)(5) stating that [n]otwithstanding the reaching of a plea agreement between the district attorney and defense counsel or defendant, the judge in every case should exercise an independent judgment in deciding whether to grant charge and sentence concessions[,]" and language in Colorado Rule of Criminal Procedure 32 (d) (rule 32 (d)) stating that when a court rejects a sentence concession it "shall so advise the defendant and the district attorney and then call upon the defendant to either affirm or withdraw the plea of guilty." The supreme court clarified that in the context of plea agreements, "sentence stipulations," "sentence agreements," "sentence concessions," and other similar terms are "nothing more than sentence recommendations that the trial court is free to accept or reject, including after the defendant's guilty plea," and that the statute and rules prohibit the prosecution and a defendant from entering into a plea agreement limiting this sentencing discretion of the trial court.

The supreme court also rejected the argument that the doctrine of separation of powers, under which an executive branch prosecutor has sole discretion to make criminal charging decisions, prohibits a trial court from accepting a guilty plea, but not the punishment stipulated in the plea agreement, without allowing the prosecution an opportunity to withdraw from the agreement. The supreme court observed that defendant pled guilty to an offense chosen as part of the prosecution's charging decision to offer a plea agreement and that the court then made a separate sentencing decision that was within its judicial purview under the applicable statute and rules. Finally, the supreme court acknowledged that its holding is inconsistent with the current practice in many trial courts and indicated that if the applicable statute and rules were amended in the future, it would apply them as amended. (For more information, contact Michael Dohr.)

 

 

Jones v. Williams, Colorado Supreme Court No. 18SA189 (June 24, 2019)

Holding: The warrant requirement of section 13-45-101 (1), C.R.S., is not a jurisdictional requirement requiring summary dismissal for noncompliance.

Case Summary: Petitioner Richard Jones filed a habeas corpus petition in district court challenging the department of corrections' (DOC) calculation of his parole eligibility date. Petitioner argued that the DOC erred in calculating the date using his 2008 conviction and that the DOC instead should use his 1991 convictions to calculate his parole eligibility date. The petitioner claimed that if the DOC used his 1991 convictions to calculated his parole eligibility date, then he was already being held unlawfully past his parole eligibility date. The petitioner included the warrant for his 2008 conviction with the petition but not the warrant for the 1991 convictions. Section 13-45-101 (1), C.R.S., requires that a habeas corpus petition include the applicable warrants.

Four previous Colorado Supreme Court cases held that the warrant requirement is jurisdictional. Butler v. Zavaras, 924 P.2d 1060 (Colo. 1996), Evans v. District Court, 572 P.2d 811(Colo. 1977), Garrett v. Knight, 480 P.2d 569 (Colo. 1971), and McNamara v. People, 410 P.2d 517 (Colo. 1966). Based on those decisions, the trial court dismissed the petitioner's habeas corpus petition.

The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the trial court and overruled the previous supreme court decisions that had held the warrant requirement to be jurisdictional. The supreme court determined that the language of section 13-45-101 (1), C.R.S., does not limit a court's jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus cases and that the warrant requirement is instead simply a statutory procedural requirement. (For more information, contact Michael Dohr.)

 

 

In re Ballot Title #3, Colorado Supreme Court No. 19SA25 (June 17, 2019)

Holding: A proposed one-sentence initiative to repeal the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, article X, section 20 of the Colorado constitution (TABOR) in its entirety has a single subject.

Case Summary: Article V, section 1 (5.5) of the Colorado constitution requires every proposed initiative to have a single subject, which must be clearly expressed in its title. Before setting a title for a proposed initiative, the title board must first find that the proposed initiative has a single subject.

Initiative proponents proposed an initiative, 2019-20 #3 (initiative #3), to repeal the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR) in its entirety. The full text of the initiative simply states: "In the constitution of the state of Colorado, repeal section 20 of article X". The title board concluded that the initiative does not have a single subject and that it therefore lacked jurisdiction to set a title because prior Colorado supreme court cases had indicated that TABOR includes multiple subjects and that a proposed initiative to repeal a constitutional provision that includes multiple subjects itself includes multiple subjects. Proponents filed a motion for rehearing, but the title board denied the motion and again declined to set a title. Proponents appealed.

The Colorado supreme court reversed the title board, holding that initiative #3 contains a single subject, the repeal of TABOR. The supreme court first noted that the single subject requirement serves the functions of (1) forbidding the treatment of incongruous subject in the same measure, especially the practice of putting together in one measure subjects having no necessary or proper connection, for the purpose of enlisting in support of the measure the advocates of each measure, and thus securing the enactment of measures that could not be carried upon their own individual merits (i.e., preventing "logrolling") and (2) preventing surreptitious measures and apprising the people of the subject of each measure by the title, that is, to prevent surprise and fraud from being practiced upon voters. The court then concluded that the initiative satisfies both functions and therefore has a single subject because it "effectuates one and only one general objective or purpose, namely the repeal of TABOR ... and could not be written more simply or directly. It essentially asks voters a single question: should TABOR be repealed in full?"

In support of its decision, the Colorado supreme court acknowledged that it had stated in multiple prior cases that if a constitutional provision contains multiple subjects, then a proposed initiative to repeal the entire provision also contains multiple subjects. But the court characterized those statements as nonbinding dicta that lacked underlying analysis. The court specifically distinguished In re Proposed Initiative 1996-4, 916 P.2d 528 (Colo. 1996), a case in which the court had concluded that a proposed initiative that would have repealed and reenacted certain individual provisions of TABOR had multiple subjects, from the total repeal of TABOR, without reenactment of any provisions, proposed by initiative #3. The court then declined to adopt the "dicta" for the following reasons: (1) "a one-sentence initiative asking voters to decide if a constitutional provision should be repealed meets all of the requirements of a single subject;" (2) there is "no basis for creating ... a unique single subject rule for efforts to repeal constitutional provisions;" and (3) "concluding that an initiative contains multiple subjects merely because the targeted provision contained multiple subjects effectively makes the original provision impervious to challenge." Having declined to adopt the "dicta", the court concluded that initiative #3 satisfied the single subject requirement.

In a dissenting opinion, two justices rejected the majority's characterization as "dicta" of prior Colorado Supreme court statements that TABOR includes multiple subjects and that an initiative proposing to repeal a constitutional provision that includes multiple subjects itself includes multiple subjects. The dissenters concluded that initiative #3 includes multiple subjects for the following reasons: (1) the single subject requirement applies to all initiatives, including those that only repeal existing constitutional provisions; (2) TABOR includes multiple subjects; (3) the constitutional single subject requirement for initiatives was adopted in 1994 in response to the adoption of TABOR for the purpose of preventing multiple-subject initiatives like TABOR from being placed on the ballot in the future, and allowing initiative #3 to appear on the ballot is thus "directly contrary to the intent of the single subject requirement;" and (4) case law has consistently held that a proposed initiative to repeal a multiple-subject constitutional provision violates the single subject requirement, and the majority had no justification to overrule that case law. (For more information, contact Jason Gelender.)

 

 

McCoy v. People, Colorado Supreme Court No. 15SC1095 (June 3, 2019)

Holding: Sufficiency of evidence claims may be raised for the first time on appeal and are not subject to plain error review. Therefore, appellate courts should review unpreserved sufficiency claims de novo.

Case Summary: Defendant McCoy was convicted of two counts of unlawful sexual contact while engaged in the treatment or examination of a victim for other than bona fide medical purposes, pursuant to section 18-3-404(1)(g), C.R.S.. McCoy appealed, arguing the prosecution presented insufficient evidence to sustain his convictions. McCoy claimed that he is not a physician and the people were required to prove that he was a physician to sustain his conviction. The People responded that because McCoy had not preserved his sufficiency claim, the appellate standard of review was for plain error, and therefore, the conviction should be upheld. 

The court of appeals had to decide what standard to apply since there was both court of appeals precedent that applied the plain error standard and precedent that applied a de novo standard to insufficient evidence claims. In a split decision, the court of appeals affirmed the conviction and applied the de novo review standard to claims of insufficient evidence. The Supreme Court granted cert and affirmed the court of appeals decision declaring that de novo review is the standard for insufficient evidence claims and also overruled all of the court of appeals decisions that applied a plain error standard. (For more information, contact Shelby Ross.)

 

 

Colo. Dept. of Labor & Employment v. Dami Hosp., Colorado Supreme Court No. 17SC200 (June 3, 2019)

Holding: The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the Colorado Court of Appeals' opinion that the Division of Workers' Compensation (DWC) abused its discretion by imposing an aggregate fine of $841,200 against a corporation for failure to maintain workers' compensation insurance without first applying a three-part test established in a Colorado case to determine whether the aggregate amount of the fines was excessive under the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment of the United States constitution (Excessive Fines Clause). The Colorado Supreme Court determined that the appropriate test in an Excessive Fines Clause analysis is not the test identified by the Colorado Court of Appeals, but a test that looks at  whether each per diem fine is grossly disproportionate to the violation, as set forth in federal case law. The Colorado Supreme Court remanded the case to the Colorado Court of Appeals to return the case to the DWC to determine, under the federal test regarding excessive fines, if each per diem fine imposed was grossly disproportionate to the violation.

Case Summary: Dami Hospitality (Dami), the owner of a Denver motel, failed to maintain workers' compensation insurance as required under the Workers' Compensation Act for extended periods of time totaling 1,698 days. The DWC fined Dami an aggregate amount of $841,200 for the violations, and Dami appealed to the Industrial Claim Appeals Office (ICAO). The ICAO remanded the case to the DWC for consideration whether the aggregate amount of the fines was constitutionally excessive under the three-part test announced in Associated Business Products v. ICAO, 126 P.3d 323 (Colo. App. 2005). The DWC determined that the aggregate amount of the fines was appropriate and not excessive. On appeal, the ICAO affirmed. On further appeal, the Colorado Court of Appeals determined that the DWC abused its discretion by failing to apply the Associated Business Products' factors to Dami's specific circumstances. The DWC appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court. 

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed with the Colorado Court of Appeals that (1) the Excessive Fines Clause applies to corporations and (2) Dami's ability to pay is an appropriate consideration in the constitutional analysis. The Court, however, disagreed with the Colorado Court of Appeals' application of the test set forth in Associated Business Products under which test the aggregate amount of the fines imposed is evaluated for excessiveness. The Court reasoned that, because each day that the law was violated is a separate and distinct violation under the relevant statute of the Workers' Compensation Act, the excessiveness of the fines should be assessed on a per diem basis. The Court concluded that the appropriate test is the test set forth in United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321 (1998), which test evaluates each per diem fine to determine whether it is grossly disproportionate to the violation. (For more information, contact Jennifer Berman.)

 

 

People v. Ross, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 17CA0204 (May 23, 2019)

Holding: Solicitation for child prostitution is a specific intent crime.

Case Summary: Defendant was charged with four counts of soliciting for child prostitution with two girls who were minors. After the prosecution presented its case, the defendant moved for acquitals on all four counts, arguing that the prosecution had not presented any evidence to prove that the defendant had solicited or arranged a meeting for the purpose of child prostitution. The prosecution argued that section 18-7-407 prevented the defendant from raising the defense that he did not know the girls' ages. The trial court disagreed, deciding that although the defendant could not present a defense that the girls were of legal age, that did not relieve the prosecution of its burden to show the arrangement was for the purpose of child prostitution. The trial court determined that, based on the photograph of one of the girls, the defendant could have determined she was underage, but there was no photograph of the second girl. So, the court dismissed the two counts related to the second girl. The prosecution appealed. 

The court of appeals reviewed the case and found that solicitation for child prostitution is a specific intent crime. The court determined that the phrase "for the purpose of" is the equivalent of "intentionally". So, the prosecution must present evidence that the defendant had the specific intent of soliciting for child prostitution. The court of appeals also agreed that section 18-7-407 prevents a defendant from raising the defense that he believed that the prostitutes were of legal age, but it does not relieve the prosecution of its burden of proving defendant's specific intent to engage in child prostitution.

The court of appeals acknowledged that a different division of the court determined that soliciting for child prostitution is a general intent crime with mens rea of knowingly, but respectfully disagreed with that opinion. See People v. Emerterio, 819, P.2s 516 (Colo.App. 1991).  (For more information, contact Shelby Ross.)

 

 

People v. Perez, Colorado Court of Appeals No. 16CA0446 (May 2, 2019)

Holding: The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's restitution order. However, even without a request by defense counsel or the prosecution, the trial court should have realized that it was requried to make a finding of extenuating circumstances before granting the prosecution additional time to present its restitution information to the court.

Case Summary: Defendant was convicted of second degree assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to five years in the custody of the Department of Corrections. At sentencing, the trial court reserved a determination of restitution for ninety- one days pursuant to section 18-1.3-603(1)(b). Ninety-four days after the order of conviction, the prosecution moved for an extension of time to request restitution, but did not show good cause or extenuating circumstances for the delay as required by section 18-1.3-603(2). Defendant did not object to the request. The trial court ordered the restitution and defendant appealed stating the trial court erred in ordering restitution more than ninety-one days after sentencing absent a showing of good cause or extenuating circumstances. The Court of Appeals held that the assertions made by the prosecution were sufficient for a finding of extenuating circumstances so the trial court's failure to make such an explicit finding was not a substantial error. The error did not cast serious doubt on the reliability of the restitution order. In a specially concuring opinion, Judge Taubman stated the statute could be clarified by amending section 18-1.3-603(1)(b) to require the prosecution to make a showing of good cause before the trail court determines that the prosecution may be accorded time to present restitution information pursuant to section 18-1.3-603(2). (For more information, contact Shelby Ross.)