Court Opinions- Apr 15, 2019

Ray v. People

Robert Ray petitioned for review of the Court of Appeals’ judgment affirming his convictions for attempted first degree murder, first-degree assault and accessory to first-degree murder. The Court of Appeals rejected Ray’s claim that one of the self-defense-related instructions given by the district court implicitly shifted the burden of proof to him by improperly imposing conditions on the availability of that affirmative defense; and in the absence of any record indication that the jury later watched a recorded witness interview admitted as an exhibit at trial, the appellate court declined to address his claim that the district court abused its discretion in allowing the jury unrestricted access to that recording.

Because the language of the instruction did not permit the jury to reconsider the court’s determination, based on the evidence at trial, that the affirmative defense of person was available to Ray, and because the jury was properly instructed concerning the People’s burden to disprove that, and any, affirmative defense, the district court did not err in instructing the jury as to his assertion that he acted in defense of himself and a third person. 

Although error resulted from the district court’s reliance on later-overruled case law permitting the jury to have unrestricted access to the exhibit in question, when the content of that exhibit is compared with the other evidence admitted at trial, the error was harmless. The judgment of the Court of Appeals was affirmed.

Justices Richard Gabriel and Melissa Hart concurred in part and dissented in part. Justice Carlos Samour did not participate. 

Hinsdale County v. HDH Partnership

The Lake Fork Hunting and Fishing Club in Hinsdale County consists of 1,400 acres divided into 29 ranches that are owned in fee simple. Each owner holding a deed to a ranch becomes a member of the club and is subject to a host of restrictive covenants and bylaws through which the club exercises significant control over the property. 

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the restrictive covenants and bylaws render the club the true “owner” of the ranch parcels and therefore liable for property taxes, even though the ranch owners hold record title to those parcels. The court answered no.

Colorado’s property tax scheme reflects legislative intent to assess property taxes to the record fee owners of real property. The respondents in this case hold record title to their ranch parcels, which they own in fee simple and can freely sell. They purchased their ranch parcels with notice of, and subject to, the club’s restrictive covenants and bylaws, which they can vote to amend or repeal. Because respondents voluntarily agreed to the restrictive covenants and bylaws that facilitate the collective use of their property for recreational purposes, the court held that they cannot rely on these same restrictive covenants and bylaws to avoid property tax liability that flows from their record title ownership. Justice Richard Gabriel penned a concurrence in the judgment, joined by Justice William Hood.

Calvert v. Mayberry

Attorney David Calvert was disbarred for various ethical violations, including entering into an oral agreement with a client without complying with the requisite safeguards of Colorado Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(a). After being disbarred, Calvert sued his former client, Diane Mayberry, for breach of that same oral agreement, claiming that there was a contract between them. The trial court granted Mayberry’s motion for summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. 

Calvert asked the Supreme Court to consider three questions related to this dispute: 

  • whether an attorney who was found to have violated Rule 1.8(a) in a disciplinary proceeding is estopped from relitigating the same factual issues in a civil proceeding; 
  • whether a contract between an attorney and a client entered into in violation of Rule 1.8(a) is enforceable; and
  • whether the trial court abused its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees against Calvert after finding his lawsuit groundless and frivolous.

Because Calvert conceded that he could not relitigate whether he entered into an agreement with a client without meeting Rule 1.8(a)’s requirements, the court declined to answer whether issue preclusion applies to those factual findings. 

The court also held that when an attorney enters into a contract without complying with Rule 1.8(a), the contract is presumptively void as against public policy; however, a lawyer may rebut that presumption by showing that, under the circumstances, the contract does not contravene the public policy underlying Rule 1.8(a). 

Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney’s fees at the trial level because the record supports the court’s finding that the case was groundless, frivolous and brought in bad faith. 

As to attorney’s fees at the appellate level, because the questions of whether issue preclusion applied in this proceeding and whether a contract made in violation of Rule 1.8(a) is void as against public policy are legitimately appealable issues, the court held that appellate attorney’s fees are not appropriate.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals as to the merits on other grounds, affirmed the award of attorney’s fees at the trial level and reversed the Court of Appeals’ order remanding for a determination of appellate attorney’s fees.

Chief Justice Nathan Coats and Justice Carlos Samour dissented.

People v. Davis

After finding himself in custody on an arrest warrant, Shaun Davis wanted someone to contact his girlfriend about retrieving the car he had with him. He invited a police officer to use his cell phone to call her, and he gave his cell phone pass code to that officer. Following a station house interview, Davis repeated his request. Again, he asked the police to contact his girlfriend. And again, he offered up his pass code. 

The police later obtained a warrant to search the contents of Davis’ cell phone. Without seeking Davis’ or the court’s specific consent, the police used the previously provided passcode to execute the search warrant.

Davis asked the trial court to suppress his statements about the pass code and any evidence from the phone. He argued that his statements about the pass code were involuntary and that they were taken in violation of his rights under Miranda v. Arizona. He also contended that the search warrant was overbroad and lacked probable cause.

The trial court rejected Davis’s arguments. The court independently discerned a constitutional defect arising from the limited scope of Davis’s consent to use the pass code. Because the police may not have been able to access the phone without the pass code, the court reasoned that the search of the phone was a consent search, not a search pursuant to a warrant. The court found that Davis gave “very limited” consent for the police to use the pass code to search his phone for his girlfriend’s phone number — not general consent to search everything in his phone. Because the trial court concluded that the search exceeded the scope of Davis’ consent, it suppressed any evidence recovered from the phone.

The Supreme Court reversed. On the facts presented here, the court concluded that the search of the phone was not a consent search but rather a search pursuant to a valid warrant, and

Davis did not manifest a legitimate expectation of privacy as to his pass code. Accordingly, law enforcement was at liberty to use the pass code to execute the search warrant.

Sharrow v. People

In this case, the Supreme Court considered the question: Does it violate due process or equal protection to revoke a defendant’s probation and sentence him to imprisonment if his failure to comply with probation was not willful and was caused instead by a lack of financial resources?

In Bearden v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court held that when a probationer fails to pay a fine or restitution as a condition of probation, “despite sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire the resources to do so, the court must consider alternate measures of punishment other than imprisonment.” But Bearden nor any other prior cases resolved the question raised by Jeremy Keith Sharrow because the trial court did not revoke his probation and impose imprisonment based on his failure to fulfill a financial obligation as a condition of his probation. Rather, it did so because it found that he had violated nonpayment conditions of his probation: he moved from his established residence without his probation officer’s authorization and he was terminated from a sex-offender-treatment program he was required to complete. Sharrow claimed that these violations were not unreasonable or willful because they were caused by his indigency — he could afford to pay for neither rent nor treatment.

A division of the Court of Appeals concluded that since the probation conditions that Sharrow violated did not involve a required payment, the trial court was not compelled to determine whether his probation violation was “unreasonable and willful” and therefore, Sharrow’s due process claim fell short.

Sharrow contended that his imprisonment following the revocation of his probation not only violated his due process rights but also his right to equal protection. The state Supreme Court concluded that Sharrow’s constitutional rights were not violated, but adopted the rule announced in Bearden for all probation revocation proceedings in which the defendant asserts that he lacked the financial means to comply with a nonpayment condition of probation.

The court held that when a probationer defends against an alleged violation of a nonpayment condition of probation based on his lack of financial means, the trial court cannot revoke probation and impose imprisonment without first determining whether he failed to comply with probation willfully or failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire resources to comply with probation. If the trial court finds that the defendant willfully refused to comply with probation or failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire resources to do so, it may revoke probation and impose imprisonment. 

On the other hand, if the trial court finds that the defendant could not comply with probation despite sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire resources to do so, it must consider alternatives to imprisonment. Only if alternate measures are not adequate to fulfill the state’s sentencing interests, including in punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation and community safety, may the court imprison an indigent defendant who, notwithstanding sufficient bona fide efforts to comply with probation, nevertheless failed to do so. By the same token, even if the trial court finds that an indigent defendant is not at fault for failing to comply with probation because he made sufficient bona fide efforts to acquire resources to do so, imprisonment following the revocation of probation is appropriate if there is no adequate alternative to fulfill the state’s sentencing interests.

During his probation revocation hearing, Sharrow presented evidence of both his indigency and his efforts to find a job in order to generate sufficient income to allow him to comply with probation. 

But the trial court found, with record support, that Sharrow did not make sufficient bona fide efforts to obtain employment. Therefore, it did not violate Sharrow’s constitutional rights by revoking his probation and imposing imprisonment. Because the division upheld the trial court’s decision, the Supreme Court affirmed, though on other grounds.

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