Court Opinions: Colorado Supreme Court Opinions for June 5

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

Garcia v. People

The Colorado Supreme Court en banc unanimously affirmed a judgment involving the term universal malice. 

In August 2016, Natalie Duran asked her sister to help her search for Duran’s live-in boyfriend, Cristobal Garcia. When searching by vehicle, the two women spotted Garcia in Duran’s car and pursued him until he stopped. Duran got out of the vehicle and confronted Garcia. When Duran walked away, she told Garcia she reported her car stolen. Garcia was accused of then aiming a handgun in Duran’s direction and firing at least three times before leaving. None of the bullets hit the women.

Garcia was charged with three counts of attempted first-degree murder. One of the counts was based on a theory of intent after deliberation and the two other counts relied on a theory of extreme indifference toward Duran and her sister. 

During a jury trial, the court instructed the jury on criminal attempt while also instructing it on the elements of extreme indifference, according to the Colorado Supreme Court opinion, that tracked with the statutory language. The defense counsel also requested a definitional instruction for universal malice. The court rejected the instruction, ruling the elemental instruction sufficed.

Garcia was convicted of attempted extreme-indifference murder. The jury acquitted Garcia of the other two counts of attempted murder, but convicted him of the lesser included offenses of reckless endangerment on both counts.

Garcia appealed and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions, finding the trial court’s instructions were adequate and an additional definition of universal malice wasn’t necessary. Shortly after that, a separate Colorado Court of Appeals division asked a similar question and strayed from the holding in Garcia’s case, instead holding universal malice required a definitional jury instruction.

Garcia appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court contending the court of appeals erred, holding the trial court wasn’t required to define universal malice for the jury. The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed.

The high court concluded the trial court adequately instructed the jury on the applicable law without including an instruction defining universal malice, it affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

State of Colorado v. Hill

The Colorado Supreme Court en banc unanimously reversed a judgment involving access to a river.

According to the Colorado Supreme Court opinion, Roger Hill’s favorite fishing hole is on a riverbed along the Arkansas River and the record owners of land abutting the river are Mark Warsewa and Linda Joseph, who have a home overlooking the fishing hole. Warsewa and Joseph are not parties to this appeal.

Hill alleged for many years, he repeatedly tried to fish there but Warsewa and Joseph chased him off the property, sometimes with force. Hill asserted the riverbed isn’t owned by Warsewa and Joseph, but is public land owned by the state of Colorado, held in trust for the people and he has a legal right to fish there. 

Hill brought two claims against Warsewa and Joseph, the first for a declaratory judgment and the second to quiet title. The case was removed to federal court where the state intervened. The case then was remanded back to state court.

In both the federal and state proceedings, the state argued it alone can decide whether and when to pursue its property rights and Hill doesn’t have a standing to bring these claims. The district court agreed with the state and dismissed it for a lack of standing.

Hill appealed the determination, arguing the riverbed is public land as a matter of federal law. Hill invoked the equal footing doctrine, which provided each newly admitted state enters the United States on equal footing with the original 13 states. 

One of the rights of that doctrine is a state gains title within its borders to beds of waters that are navigable. The federal government, however, retains title to non-navigable riverbeds and can grant such title to private landowners. Title to Warsewa and Joseph’s property can be traced back to a federal land grant. 

On appeal, Hill argued the segment of the Arkansas River that traverses the property was navigable at statehood, which means the title transferred to the state when Colorado became a state in 1876, and since the federal government didn’t own the riverbed, it couldn’t transfer its title to Warsewa and Joseph’s predecessors. For those reasons, Hill argued the riverbed belonged to the state, not Warsewa and Joseph, and Hill couldn’t trespass on the property.

A division of the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the quiet title claim, concluding Hill cannot pursue the property rights of the state because Hill doesn’t himself have any claim to the title. 

The appeals court did resurrect Hill’s declaratory judgment claim, writing, “Hill argues that, because the river was navigable at statehood, the riverbed is public land owned by the State of Colorado. Thus, he, as a member of the public, is not trespassing by wading on the riverbed. He therefore requests a declaratory judgment to that effect, as well as injunctive relief preventing [Warsewa and Joseph] from treating him as a trespasser. Here, unlike in the quiet title claim, Hill is alleging an interest that is his own—the right to wade and fish in the river at the location in question.”

The appeals court remanded the case for trial on the declaratory judgment claim. The state petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court for certiorari, which was granted

The Colorado Supreme Court held an individual lacks standing to pursue declaratory judgment that a river segment was navigable for title at statehood and belonged to the state. The high court wrote that a declaratory judgment is procedural, not substantive in nature and to demonstrate a legally protected interest to establish standing for a declaratory judgment, a party needs to assert a legal basis on which claim for relief can be grounded.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court wrote, the individual plaintiff has no legally protected right independent of the state’s alleged ownership of the riverbed onto which he can hook a declaratory judgment claim. The high court added Hill’s asserted legally protected interests rest on an antecedent question of whether the state owns the property at issue, therefore, they cannot provide him with a standing to pursue a declaratory judgment action.

The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision. 

People v. Kelley

The Colorado Supreme Court en banc unanimously discharged a rule in a case involving physician-patient privilege.

According to the Colorado Supreme Court opinion, Noelle Kelley was taken by ambulance to a hospital after being involved in a car accident where another person was injured. At the hospital, an officer investigating the accident asked Kelley if she would release her medical records to authorities, but she refused. After Kelley was charged with vehicular assault, careless driving and driving under the influence, Kelley pled not guilty and endorsed the affirmative defense of involuntary intoxication.

Prosecutors filed a motion asking the trial court to conclude Kelley’s endorsement of involuntary intoxication as an affirmative defense constituted an implied waiver of her physician-patient privilege and the prosecutors were entitled to the disclosure of her medical records from the hospital that night.

Prosecutors also asked the court to determine that Kelley’s refusal to release her medical records was admissible at trial. The trial court granted the prosecutor’s motion for both issues. 

Kelley then petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to exercise its original jurisdiction and the high court issued a rule to show cause.

The Colorado Supreme Court wrote Kelley’s petition raised two issues: first Kelley contended that when she endorsed the affirmative defense of involuntary intoxication, she didn’t impliedly waive her physician-patient privilege; Kelley also asserted even if she did waive the privilege, the trial court’s order requiring the release of her medical records was too broad.

The Colorado Supreme Court concluded a party impliedly waives the physician-patient privilege when they assert the affirmative defense of involuntary intoxication; the scope of the implied waiver is limited to the medical records related to the affirmative defense; and the trial court’s disclosure order wasn’t overbroad because it was limited to the medical records related to Kelley’s endorsement of the affirmative defense of involuntary intoxication.

Kelley also argued her refusal to release her medical records is inadmissible because she cannot be penalized for exercising her Fourth Amendment right to refuse a warrantless search. The Colorado Supreme Court wrote, since the parties didn’t have the opportunity to fully litigate that specific issue before the trial court, it declined to address it.

For those reasons, the Colorado Supreme Court discharged the rule to show cause.

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