Court Opinions – Jul 1, 2019

Jones v. Williams

The Habeas Corpus Act requires that a habeas petition “be accompanied by a copy of the warrant of commitment.” In this habeas corpus appeal, the Supreme Court considered whether a district court may summarily dismiss a petition for lack of jurisdiction when the petition includes the petitioner’s mittimus for his latest conviction but does not include the mittimuses for two earlier convictions, which he asserts are relevant to his habeas claim. 

To resolve this issue, the Supreme Court reviewed the constitutional and statutory authority authorizing habeas corpus and prior case law discussing the warrant requirement. 

The court concluded that noncompliance with the warrant requirement does not deprive courts of jurisdiction over habeas corpus petitions. The court overruled its prior cases holding that failing to provide a copy of the warrant of commitment is a jurisdictional defect, deprives the court of authority to act on a habeas petition and requires summary dismissal. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court’s order dismissing the habeas petition for lack of jurisdiction and remanded to the district court for further consideration.

In re Feldman

Robert Feldman and the law firm of Haddon Morgan & Foreman petitioned for relief pursuant to C.A.R. 21 from an order of the probate court requiring the law firm to provide information to the special administrator concerning its representation of Feldman in a criminal prosecution for the murder of his wife and to deposit funds held in its client trust account into the registry of the court.

In response to the assertion of the special administrator that Colorado’s “slayer statute” applies to the funds at issue as proceeds of the decedent’s life insurance policy, the probate court determined that if Feldman were later found, in the manner prescribed by the statute, to be the decedent’s killer, he would be ineligible to receive those proceeds. 

Against that eventuality, the probate court found that compelling the return of the unearned funds in the firm’s client trust account would be the only way to protect the children’s interests and that the court’s equitable powers permitted it to do so.

The Supreme Court issued its rule to show cause and concluded that the probate court abused its discretion by issuing its order without weighing the considerations inherent in preliminarily enjoining the law firm from expending further funds in the representation of Feldman. In addition, however, because the slayer statute expressly protects third parties who receive a payment in satisfaction of a legally enforceable obligation from being forced to return that payment or from liability for the amount of the payment, no finding of a reasonable likelihood of success in attempting to force the return of the insurance proceeds would have been possible. Given this resolution, the disclosures ordered by the court would not serve their intended purpose. The rule was therefore made absolute.

People v. Brown

While on patrol, a police officer heard a man and woman arguing behind the gate of a storage facility. When the officer called dispatch to report the disturbance, he was informed that a call had just come in regarding a possible domestic disturbance involving a man named Alexis Brown at that same location. 

Seconds later, the yelling stopped, and the officer saw a man walking away from the storage facility; the man was the only visible person in the area. The officer stopped the man and asked his name. 

When the man gave his name as Alexis Brown, the officer realized that it matched the name given for the possible domestic disturbance. The officer then ran a records check on Brown’s name and found that there was an active warrant for his arrest, at which point Brown was taken into custody; a subsequent search revealed methamphetamine in his pocket.

Brown was not charged for the domestic disturbance, but he was charged based on the methamphetamine. Prior to trial, the court concluded that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initially stop Brown and it thus suppressed all evidence arising from the encounter. The People filed this interlocutory appeal. The Supreme Court reversed.

The court concluded that the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion that Brown was involved in an act of domestic violence. The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s suppression order and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Garcia v. People

A restraining order prohibited defendant Juvenal Onel Garcia from contacting C.G. Almost two years after the issuance of the restraining order, Garcia allegedly attempted to sexually assault C.G. Based on events related to that criminal episode, a jury convicted Garcia of first degree burglary, attempted sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, third degree assault, violation of a protection order and obstruction of telephone service.

Garcia appealed, raising two unpreserved claims: The trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the sexual assault charge; and the trial court improperly instructed the jury regarding the force sentence enhancer related to his attempted sexual assault conviction. 

Because the alleged errors weren’t preserved at trial, they are subject to plain error review. This means that Garcia’s convictions won’t be overturned unless at least one error was “both obvious and substantial.” To constitute a basis for reversal, any such error must have “so undermined the fundamental fairness of the trial itself as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of the judgment of conviction.” 

A division of the Court of Appeals affirmed Garcia’s convictions. First, it concluded that any error regarding the sexual assault instruction wasn’t obvious because the instruction matched “the Model Jury Instructions that existed at th[e] time” of trial. Next, the division concluded that because a published Court of Appeals opinion refuted Garcia’s contention regarding the sentence enhancer, any instructional error wasn’t obvious, and thus wasn’t plain. 

Having agreed to review the judgment of the division, the Supreme Court considered: whether the division incorrectly held that an instructional error is not plain if it tracks the model jury instruction existing at the time of trial; whether plain error should be assessed at the time of trial or the time of direct appeal; and whether the sentence enhancer requires proof of the mens rea “knowingly.”

The Supreme Court concluded that the division erred in holding that simply following the model instructions avoids plain error. But, for different reasons, the court agreed that any error regarding the sexual assault instruction doesn’t require reversal. The Supreme Court did so because Garcia failed to show that any errors undermined the fundamental fairness of the trial itself as to cast serious doubt on the reliability of Garcia’s convictions. 

Because the court resolved this issue based on lack of prejudice, it need not reach the question of whether the obviousness of an error should be assessed at the time of trial or the time of direct appeal.
The court also concluded that the force sentence enhancer doesn’t include a mens rea requirement, and, therefore, there was no error with respect to that instruction. 

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Owners Insurance v. Dakota Station II Condominium Association

A condominium association, Dakota, filed two claims with its insurer, Owners, for weather damage. The parties couldn’t agree on the money owed, so Dakota invoked the appraisal provision of its insurance policy. 

The appraisal provision requires each party to “select a competent and impartial appraiser.” An umpire would be selected by the parties or appointed by the court. The appraisers would assess the value of the property and amount of loss. Any disagreement would be submitted to the umpire. Any agreement as to the values reached by at least two of the three would bind them all. 

The parties each selected an appraiser, putting the rest of the provision’s terms into motion. Ultimately, the appraisers submitted conflicting value estimates to the umpire, and the umpire issued a final award, accepting some estimates from each appraiser. Dakota’s appraiser signed onto the award, and Owners paid Dakota. 

Later, Owners called foul. It moved to vacate the award, arguing that Dakota’s appraiser was not “impartial” as required by the insurance policy’s appraisal provision and that she failed to disclose material facts. The trial court disagreed and “dismissed” the motion to vacate. A division of the Court of Appeals affirmed. 

The Supreme Court was tasked with interpreting the policy’s impartiality requirement and determining whether a contingent-cap fee agreement between Dakota and its appraiser rendered the appraiser partial as a matter of law. The court concluded that the plain language of the policy requires appraisers to be unbiased, disinterested and unswayed by personal interest. 

They must not favor one side more than another, so they may not  advocate for either party. The court also held that the contingent-cap fee agreement didn’t render Dakota’s appraiser partial as a matter of law. Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals with respect to the contingent-cap fee agreement, reversed with respect to the impartiality requirement and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Campbell v. People

This case required the Supreme Court to decide whether the trial court abused its discretion in permitting a police officer to testify regarding the results of a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test without first qualifying that officer as an expert witness under CRE 702 and Venalonzo v. People.

The court concluded that, on the facts of this case, the officer’s testimony concerning the HGN test was expert testimony under CRE 702 and that the district court therefore erred in holding otherwise. The court further concluded, however, that on the facts presented here, the court’s error in admitting the testimony was harmless.

The Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Santich v. VCG Holding Corp

Under Colorado law, equitable estoppel requires proof of four elements. One of those elements has long been detrimental reliance on the words or actions of the party against whom estoppel is sought. 

The Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction over a certified question of law from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado that requires us to determine whether there should be an exception to that requirement in the context of arbitration agreements.

The Supreme Court held that Colorado’s law of equitable estoppel applies in the same manner when a dispute involves an arbitration agreement as it does in other contexts. Thus, a nonsignatory to an arbitration agreement can only assert equitable estoppel against a signatory in an effort to compel arbitration if the nonsignatory can demonstrate each of the elements of equitable estoppel, including detrimental reliance.

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