Court Opinions: Colorado Court of Appeals Opinions for Nov. 4

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

People v. Taylor

Bobby Taylor was convicted for possession of cocaine. During deliberation, the jury informed the trial judge that “there would never be a unanimous decision” since one member believed Taylor was guilty but refused to enter a guilty vote due to “his/her disagreement with the drug laws” of Colorado. The note sent to the judge added that the juror admitted to knowingly breaking an oath. 

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After confirming with the skeptical juror that the note’s contents were accurate, the presiding judge dismissed them for “just cause” under Colorado law and instructed the remaining jurors to enter their verdict. According to the trial judge, the juror’s choice to not voice their pre-existing beliefs about Colorado’s drug laws earlier and their choice to break an oath swearing to follow the law were cause to dismiss. Taylor’s counsel objected to the decision. 

Among other challenges, the Colorado Court of Appeals was asked if section 18-1-406(7) of Colorado Revised Statutes contradicts protections from the State Constitution for felony defendants to be tried by a 12-person jury. 

Looking at the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2005 decision People v. Rodriguez, a division of the Court of Appeals held that the statute was in conflict with the state constitution’s protections for felony defendants and that simply starting a trial with 12 jurors did not fit with the right. The division reversed Taylor’s conviction and remanded for a new trial. 

People v. Caime

A jury convicted Jeffrey Caime of possession of a controlled substance and found that he was a special offender. After an abbreviated proportionality review, the trial court adjudicated Caime a habitual offender and imposed a statutorily mandated 64-year sentence. 

On top of three challenges to his trial, Caime appealed his conviction and argued that the trial court’s proportionality review was inadequate. The habitual offender charge was based on the identification of five previous felonies on Caime’s record for possession with intent to distribute, two charges for possession of a weapon by a previous offender, criminal mischief and vehicular assault of reckless driving. The court looked into all charges except criminal mischief but held that “the four convictions for three grave or serious offenses” were enough to justify the mandated sentence. 

Looking at its decision in People v. Wright and the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision in Wells-Yates v. People, a division of the Colorado Court of Appeals held that neither possession with intent to distribute nor possession of a weapon by a previous offender could be considered per se grave offenses. 

In its de novo review of if reckless driving is a serious offense in proportionality review, the division ruled it is not because “at least one offense that involves not just serious bodily injury but death that is not even classified as a felony;” it was not aware crime considered per se grave only because it causes serious bodily injury; and the state legislature’s use of “serious” in statutory language is unrelated to the Supreme Court’s use of the word in the context of crime. 

The division of the court upheld Caime’s conviction but vacated and remanded the sentence for a new proportionality review. 

Johnson v. CSA

On Nov. 11, 2015, an inmate at the Denver Downtown Detention Center was involved in a physical altercation with deputies from the Denver Sheriff’s Department. After a series of attempts to restrain the inmate and on-site nurses attending to a series of serious medical concerns, paramedics brought him to an off-site hospital where he died nine days later. Captain James Johnson oversaw the Denver Downtown Detention Center, a position he held for less than two months before the incident. 

In April 2017, Shannon Elwell, the administrator of the Denver Department of Safety’s Civilian Review, suspended Johnson without pay for 10 days. Elwell held that during the incident, Johnson neglected duty and failed to observe written Denver Sheriff’s Department regulations. 

Johnson appealed the decision to the Career Service Authority  Hearing Office which overturned the suspension. The City of Denver then appealed the reversal to the Career Service Authority Board which agreed with the original suspension and held that Johnson did “virtually nothing during a crisis situation” and that he “committed the rules violations as charged.” Johnson then appealed the decision to the Denver District Court which affirmed the suspension. 

Johnson appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals asserting that the board improperly engaged in its own fact finding, erred in dismissing the testimony of retired Captain Jeff Wood and improperly construed Denver Career Service Rule 16 since his actions were not grave enough to be a violation. 

Interpreting Denver Career Service Rules, the majority of the court rejected Johnson’s appeal and held that the board can reach different conclusions with the same facts than the law and that the board is able to reverse the officer’s decision that would “establish precedent beyond the existing appeal.” 

Judge David Furman dissented from the majority decision, concluding that the board engaged in improper evidentiary fact finding before coming to its ultimate decision. Furman urged the state Supreme Court to hear the case to clarify “the important standards of review applicable to ‘ultimate’ findings by agencies.” “The distinction between evidentiary facts and ultimate conclusions of fact is not always clear,” Furman added in his dissent, pointing out the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2001 decision in Lawley v. Department of Higher Education. 

In re Estate of Dowdy

Mary Dowdy filed a timely request for exempt property and a family allowance with the district court and she petitioned for an elective share of her husband Alvin Dowdy’s estate following his 2019 death. 

On the advice of counsel, the estate’s personal representative, ​​Daniel Travers, filed a notice of disallowance of claims for a family allowance based on a 2018 Jefferson County District Court order in an unrelated case. The district court held that Dowdy qualified for the exempt property allowance but not the family allowance since her husband left no minor or dependent children. 

Dowdy and Travers appealed the ruling and argued that the district’s court plain-language and statutory history interpretation of the statute was incorrect. 

The Colorado Court of Appeals agreed and established three categories of potential beneficiaries under the family allowance statute. It held that the descendant’s surviving spouse and minor and dependent children are eligible for family allowance. 

The lower ruling was reversed and the appellate court remanded for the determination and award of the allowance.

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