Court Opinions: Colorado Supreme Court Opinions for June 21

Colorado Supreme Court

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

Leyba v. People

In a case without oral arguments, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that no minimum amount of time must pass between a suspect invoking their right to a lawyer and reinitiating an interrogation with law enforcement.

Furmen Leyba was taken into custody after he and an accomplice robbed a house and fatally shot three people. At the beginning of his interrogation, Leyba asked detectives for a lawyer but immediately continued talking. Detectives advised Leyba of his Miranda rights and confirmed that he wanted to continue speaking despite his lawyer not being present. Leyba was later charged with multiple counts of felony murder, aggravated robbery and accessory to first-degree murder. 

In his trial, Leyba moved to suppress any statements he made in interrogation claiming that his Miranda rights were violated. The lower court rejected the motion reasoning he had not unequivocally invoked his right to counsel. After he was convicted by a jury of multiple crimes, Leyba petitioned the court of appeals arguing that his motion to suppress was erroneously rejected. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld his conviction on different grounds than the trial court. It ruled that although Leyba invoked his right for counsel, he immediately revoked the right by continuing speaking to interrogators about his detention. 

Leyba asked the Colorado Supreme Court to decide if — under People v. Bradshaw and People v. Redgebol — he had actually revoked his right to counsel since his questions to the officers occurred immediately after asking for a lawyer. The supreme court held that although trial courts should consider the time between asking for counsel and re-starting interrogation, Redgebol and Bradshaw do not require a minimum amount of time to pass between invoking right to counsel and re-initiating communications. 

In the Matter of the Title, Ballot Title and Submission Clause for 2021–2022 #16

The supreme court shut down a proposed ballot initiative for violating the state constitution’s single-subject requirement, 7-0 without oral arguments. Initiative 16 proposed ending livestock exemptions to the state’s animal cruelty statutes and changing the definition of “sexual act with an animal.” 

The initiative, which drew criticism from Colorado’s agricultural community, would have removed certain livestock exemptions from criminal animal cruelty standards, created new conditions for livestock slaughter including living conditions and lifespan at slaughter age and expand the definition of “sexual act with an animal,” effectively limiting industry standards for livestock breeding.

The Title Board, which sets initiative titles and ensures any proposals stick to one subject, approved Initiative 16. A group of petitioners asked the supreme court to reexamine the initiative, arguing that it contains three distinct subjects: removal of livestock exemptions; requiring livestock like a quarter of their “natural lifespans” before slaughter; and expanding the definition of “sexual act with an animal” to include “any intrusion or penetration, however slight, with an object or part of a person’s body into an animal’s anus or genitals” and to replace exemptions for “husbandry” (scientific and veterinary breeding)”

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the first two subjects–removal of exemptions and lifespan requirements–both pertained to the central purpose of introducing livestock to animal cruelty statutes. 

However, the court ruled, the third element to amend the definition of sexual acts with an animal, was not livestock specific and therefore breached the single subject rule. Since the proposal would affect all animals, not just pets, it “runs the risk voters with a surreptitious change,” the court decided. 

Initiative 16 was sent back to the Title Board to strike the titles and return it to its proponents. 

Lo Viento Blanco v. Woodbridge Condominium Association

For the first time, the Colorado Supreme Court considered whether acknowledging a landowner’s title while using property rules out easement rights. Unlike squatter’s rights requirements, the court ruled that acknowledging someone else’s ownership over land does not by itself prevent prescriptive easement rights. 

From 1975 through 2012 residents and maintenance staff of Woodbridge Condominium Association in Snowmass Village used and tended to a piece of land owned by Foy Construction Company. In March 1991, the condo association reached out to Foy for permission to plant trees and shrubs on the nearby land. Permission was granted but Foy asked Woodbridge to write a letter waiving any claim to ownership. Woodbridge never replied, which a trial court later considered a rejection of Foy’s proposal.  In June the next year, Woodbridge reached out to Foy once again and offered to purchase the land but never received a reply. The condo association continued to maintain and use the land as though it owned it. 

Arizona-based company Lo Viento Blanco purchased the land in 2010 with development plans. Woodbridge initially filed a request to quiet title of the land claiming it had squatters rights. Alternatively, it asked to be granted a prescriptive easement of the land. A trial court granted the squatters rights that were later overturned by the state court of appeals in 2016 arguing that since Woodbridge acknowledged it did not own the land in 1991 and 1992, it could not claim squatter’s rights. The court remanded the case back to the trial court to consider if Woodbridge could be granted a prescriptive easement. 

On remand, the trial court granted Woodbridge a prescriptive easement of the land. The easement was upheld by a division of the court of appeals but was appealed once again to the state Supreme Court. Lo Viento Blanco asked the court if, like in the case of squatter’s rights, recognizing someone else’s ownership while using disputed land prevents prescriptive easements. 

The court ruled that recognition does not by itself interrupt prescriptive use or defeat the presumption that the use was adverse in cases of prescriptive easement. The court agreed that Woodbride has established all elements needed in prescriptive easements and affirmed the original trial court decision. 

Poudre School District v. Stanczyk

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether or not school districts can mandate teachers to waive non-probation status earned in another district under 22-63-203.5 of the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act. The court found that since TECDA places decision-making authority regarding probation status on teachers, a required waiver of non-probation status as a condition of employment is an involuntary and invalid requirement. 

Patricia Stanczyk joined the Poudre School District as a teacher in 2016. Before Poudre, she taught in the Thompson School district for over 20 years and earned “non-probationary” status based on the criteria of TECDA. When she applied for the position, the online application portal required her to waive any non-probation status in Poudre, a requirement which was reiterated in her contract. Stanczyk asked the district HR about the policy and was informed that PSD didn’t allow teachers to carry non-probation status earned in another district with them. 

At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the district declined to renew her contract. Under TECDA, non-probationary teachers cannot be fired without a reason while those on probation can be fired at will.  In response, she provided her latest teacher evaluations from Thompson in hopes of having her status carry over which was denied by the district that pointed out the online application and contract. 

Stanczyk sued and a summary judgment in favor of PSD was granted by a district court. On appeal, a division of the court of appeals decided that requiring teachers to waive non-probation status was an unreasonable restriction and violated 11-63-203.5. It also held that school districts must grant non-probate status to any teacher that complies with the statute requirements. PSD petitioned the state supreme court to review the application of 22-63-203.5.

The district argued Stanczyk was not forced to waive her status since she could have submitted a paper application or attempted to negotiate her terms. It further asserted that since 22-63-203.5 does not directly ban blanket waivers, asking employees to waive probation status in an internal contract is legal. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled against PSD since Stanczyk had inquired about portability while applying but was met with a “we don’t do that here” from HR.  Since she was required to waive her non-probation status before employment, the court ruled that it was not a free or deliberate choice.  

The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court ruling but identified a handful of facts and timelines that are still unclear. It remanded the case to trial court to work out the facts. 

Strepka v. People

Trial courts have jurisdiction over motions for return of unlawfully seized property filed before appeal deadlines expire when cases are dismissed, the state supreme court ruled. 

Mark Strepka, a four-time felon, had one gun, a gun case, ammunition and methamphetamine seized after he was pulled over during a traffic stop. In Oct 2015, a trial court found law enforcement did not have reasonable suspicion to search Strepka’s car and his property was unlawfully seized. Charges filed by the prosecution–possession of a controlled substance and possession of a weapon by a previous offender–were dropped. 

In December, 21 days after the charges were dismissed, Strepka motioned for return of the gun, ammunition and case under Crim. P. 41(e). Soon after the prosecution filed its objection, pointing to Strepka’s previous felony convictions. The trial court issued its decision in Jan 2016, granting the return of the case and ammunition but denying the return of his weapon. Strepka appealed the decision. 

While on appeal, the court of appeals issued its decision in People v. Chavez that determined trial courts lose jurisdiction over the return of property motions once a valid sentence is imposed. Both Strepka and the prosecution issued supplemental briefs addressing Chavez. Both sides agreed that based on Dike v. People, the trial court had jurisdiction over Strepka’s motion. 

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals disagreed with the interpretation and ruled the trial court did not have jurisdiction.  It argued that Dike was only applicable in “unusual circumstances.” Strepka appealed the decision asking the supreme court if trial courts lose jurisdiction over unlawfully seized property returns once criminal charges are dismissed. 

The Colorado Supreme Court found that Dike was in fact relevant to the case and overturned the lower court’s ruling. As long as a motion for return of property is filed before an appeal deadline expires, trial courts maintain jurisdiction.

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