Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for March 17

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

People v. Ton Thai Le

Sometimes the taxman is the victim. That’s what the Colorado Court of Appeals concluded Thursday, when it found the Colorado Department of Revenue is entitled to restitution from a defendant in a tax evasion case.

Ton Thai Le and 30 others were indicted on felony charges for their roles as high-ranking members in a drug trafficking organization that illegally grew and distributed marijuana. Le pleaded guilty to multiple offenses, including evading Colorado’s marijuana excise tax, a class 5 felony.

Le’s plea agreement required him to “pay restitution jointly and severally with any co-defendants.” The state sought payment of restitution to the Department of Revenue for unpaid marijuana excise taxes. However, Le argued that Colorado’s Restitution Act doesn’t authorize payment to the department.

The Restitution Act requires convicted offenders to pay restitution to compensate crime victims for the harm they have suffered. The trial court found the Department of Revenue cannot collect restitution on behalf of “society,” which it deemed the victim in the case.

But the Department of Revenue asked the Court of Appeals to consider a different question that the trial court failed to address: Can the department itself be considered a “victim” under the Restitution Act?

The Restitution Act defines a victim as “any person aggrieved by the conduct of an offender,” including any person “harmed by an offender’s criminal conduct in the course of a scheme, conspiracy, or pattern of criminal activity.” A government agency is considered a person under the statute.

The Court of Appeals concluded, in a matter of first impression, that the department can be a victim under the Restitution Act because it had an interest in the unpaid excise taxes and was “aggrieved by” and directly harmed by Le’s tax evasion.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s order denying the state’s motion for restitution. The appellate court also directed the trial court to give the state a chance to show the amount of restitution owed and prove that the department’s losses were proximately caused by the defendant.

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