Court Opinions – Nov 11, 2019

Wells-Yates v. People

Wells-Yates v. People


In this case and two companion cases that follow, Melton v. People and People v. McRae, the Colorado Supreme Court considered multiple issues that lie at the intersection of proportionality review and habitual criminal punishment. In the process, the court sought to shed light on these areas of the law and to correct misstatements that appear in the case law. 

The prosecution charged Belinda Wells-Yates in 2012 with second-degree burglary, conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary, theft, possession with intent to sell or distribute 7 grams or less of a schedule II controlled substance (methamphetamine), four counts of identity theft and three habitual criminal counts. 

In February 2013, a jury found Wells-Yates guilty of all the substantive charges. In total, Wells-Yates received an aggregate prison term of 72 years: 24 years on count 7, consecutive to all the other sentences (the longest of which were the 48-year concurrent sentences on counts 1 and 4). She is eligible for parole.

The court held that: During an abbreviated proportionality review of a habitual criminal sentence, the court must consider each triggering offense and the predicate offenses together and determine whether, in combination, they are so lacking in gravity or seriousness as to raise an inference that the sentence imposed on that triggering offense is grossly disproportionate; in determining the gravity or seriousness of the triggering offense and the predicate offenses, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively; not all narcotic offenses are per se grave or serious; and the narcotic offenses of possession and possession with intent are not per se grave or serious. 

Because the Court of Appeals’ decision is at odds with this opinion, its judgment was reversed. Accordingly, the case was remanded with instructions to return it to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. 

Melton v. People 

Johnny Melton, charged with six substantive drug offenses and three habitual criminal counts, was found guilty of possession of 1 gram or less of each of three schedule I or II controlled substances (methamphetamine, heroin and oxycodone). Because Melton had previously been convicted of possession of a schedule II controlled substance, each of the three convictions in this case was elevated from a class 6 felony to a class 4 felony. 

At a subsequent bench trial in December 2010, the court adjudicated Melton a habitual criminal based on his prior felony convictions for possession of methamphetamine, theft and second-degree assault.

 The court then imposed a mandatory 24-year prison sentence on each of the three triggering offenses (four times the maximum prison term in the presumptive range) and ordered that the sentences be served concurrently. 

Consistent with considerations from Wells-Yates v. People and People v. McRae, the Supreme Court held that: possession of schedule I and II controlled substances is not per se grave or serious; and in determining the gravity or seriousness of the triggering and predicate offenses during an abbreviated proportionality review, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively. 

The court held that theft is not a per se grave or serious offense. Because the Court of Appeals reached different conclusions, its judgment was reversed. And, because additional factual determinations are necessary to properly address the defendant’s proportionality challenge, the case was remanded with instructions to return it to the trial court for a new proportionality review in accordance with the three opinions announced as companion cases. 

People v. McRae 

On July 2, 2013, Clifton McRae sold 6.86 grams of methamphetamine, a schedule II controlled substance, for $350 to his girlfriend, who was working as a confidential informant. The prosecution later brought six drug-related charges against McRae, only two of which arose from the July 2, 2013 transaction, and six habitual criminal charges. In August 2014, the jury found McRae guilty of selling or distributing a schedule II controlled substance, a class 3 felony, and possessing drug paraphernalia, a petty offense, in connection with the July 2, 2013 transaction. The jury could not reach a verdict on the four remaining counts and those counts were eventually dismissed. 

Consistent with Wells-Yates v. People, the lead case in this series of cases, the court held that, in determining the gravity or seriousness of triggering and predicate offenses during an abbreviated proportionality review, the court should consider any relevant legislative amendments enacted after the dates of those offenses, even if the amendments do not apply retroactively. 

Although the Court of Appeals reached a similar conclusion, it erred in failing to recognize that, rather than consider relevant prospective legislative amendments enacted after the dates of the triggering and predicate offenses, the trial court actually applied those amendments retroactively. Accordingly, its judgment was reversed. And, because additional factual determinations are necessary to properly address the defendant’s proportionality challenge, the case was remanded with instructions to return it to the trial court for a new proportionality review in accordance with the three opinions announced as companion cases. 

Colorado Court of Appeals

November 7

Defendant Karl Baker appealed the judgment of conviction entered on jury verdicts finding him guilty of three counts of securities fraud, three counts of theft ($20,000 or more) and one count of filing a false tax return.  Because the Court of Appeals conclude that the prosecution’s expert witness on securities impermissibly testified to conclusions solely within the jury’s province, it reversed Baker’s securities fraud and theft convictions and remand for a new trial on those counts. The court affirmed the conviction for filing a false tax return. 

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