Court Opinions – Jul 8, 2019

City and County of Denver v. Consolidated Ditches of Water District No. 2

Under a 1940 water use agreement, Denver agreed, in lieu of making releases from certain streambed reservoirs to replace seepage and evaporation losses, not to reuse or successively use return flows from water imported from the Western Slope. Earlier litigation established that this reuse prohibition in the 1940 agreement applies only to return flows derived from decreed water rights from Colorado River sources with appropriation dates before May 1, 1940; Denver may therefore use return flows derived from sources that were appropriated or acquired after that date. 

The question in this appeal is whether the 1940 agreement prohibits Denver from using return flows from water imported from the Blue River system under exchange and substitution operations decreed in 1955 and administered under a 1946 priority date using water stored in the Williams Fork Reservoir under a 1935 priority as a substitute supply. Because the water imported through the Roberts Tunnel under Blue River exchange and substitution operations is a source acquired by Denver after May 1, 1940, the Supreme Court concluded that the resulting return flows are not subject to the 1940 agreement, and Denver may reuse and successively use them. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment and decree of the water court.

Howard-Walker v. People

Kyree Howard-Walker was identified as one of two burglars of a Colorado Springs home and 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.

A division of the Court of Appeals sifted through the alleged errors and eventually identified eight, but also 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. Instead of relying only on the Supreme Court precedent in Oaks v. People, the division 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 Supreme Court concluded that the division below erred by supplementing the Oaks standard. And under Oaks, the Supreme Court reversed because the cumulative effect of these errors deprived Howard-Walker of a fair trial. 

Because the court concluded there was cumulative error, it did not address the question of whether plain error is determined at the time of appeal or the time of trial. The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded for a new trial.

Diehl v. Weiser

This habeas corpus appeal required the Supreme Court to determine how the Department of Corrections should apply the “one-continuous-sentence” statute, section 17-22.5-101, C.R.S. (2018), to an offender who was eligible for and released to parole, committed additional crimes while on parole and was sentenced for those subsequent crimes concurrent with his initial sentence. The central question is whether the offender’s original prison sentences should be included in the newly calculated continuous sentence for purposes of determining a new parole eligibility date. The Supreme Court concluded that they should not.

People v. Mazzarelli

The Supreme Court considered whether the People are entitled to withdraw from a plea agreement where, following the defendant’s guilty plea, the trial court determines that a more lenient sentence than the one the parties set forth in the agreement is appropriate. Answering the question in the negative, the court held that the statute and the rules governing plea agreements in Colorado allow the defendant, but not the People, to withdraw from a plea agreement when the trial court rejects a sentence concession after accepting the guilty plea. 

In so doing, the court reiterated what it has previously made clear: sentence concessions in a plea agreement — whether they are called sentence stipulations, sentence agreements, or something else — are sentence recommendations that the trial court, in the exercise of its independent judgment, may adopt or reject.

Phillips v. People

The prosecution charged Leo Phillips with possession of a weapon by a previous offender and driving under restraint. 

Before trial, defense counsel moved to suppress three pieces of evidence: Phillips’ statements inside a police car; his subsequent statements at a police station; and 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 Supreme Court agreed with the division that Phillips failed to preserve his appellate claims. But the court found that no waiver occurred. The Supreme Court held that Phillips forfeited the claims and that the claims are thus subject to plain error review. Upon conducting such review, the Supreme Court concluded that the trial court did not err in admitting the police-station statements and that the record does not establish that the admission of the gun was plain error.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the division’s judgment.

Justice Carlos Samour penned the majority opinion, and Justice William Hood concurred in the judgment only, joined by Chief Justice Nathan Coats and Justice Monica Márquez.

Cardman v. People

Detective Paul Patton coerced Matthew Ryan 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 Supreme Court disagreed with the division and therefore reversed. 

For the reasons articulated in Phillips v. People, a companion case also announced July 1, the court held that the voluntariness claim was forfeited, not waived, and is thus subject to plain error review. 

The Supreme Court concluded that the court erred in admitting Cardman’s statements at trial and that the error rises to the level of plain error requiring reversal.The Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeals with instructions to return the case to the trial court for a new trial. 

Hood dissented, joined by Coats and Márquez.

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