Court Opinions: Colorado Supreme Court Opinions for March 6

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

People v. Willoughby

The Colorado Supreme Court en banc reversed an order involving Miranda rights.

Four Longmont police officers arrived at Brent Willoughby’s apartment and were following up on a report Willoughby’s girlfriend K.M. made to police concerning alleged instances of domestic violence, including assaulting her and damaging several items of property such as pieces of artwork. 

When officers arrived, Willoughby didn’t answer his door and instead began talking to the officers from his second-story balcony as the officers were on the ground below. During this time period, police made multiple statements to Willoughby that he was under arrest 

Willoughby followed up by claiming the property K.M. alleged he destroyed belonged to him. Willoughby offered to show officer Cooper Arvisais his art equipment to prove his ownership of the property. Arvisais asked Willoughby if he could come in to take a look at it. Willoughby agreed to let him in, as Willoughby asked if that means he would be going to jail.

Arvisais replied that “I’m not gonna lie to you and tell you you’re not going to jail. . . . If you’re voluntar[ily] willing to let us go in there and look, and it proves your side of the story, then it will probably change you going to jail, but I’m not going to tell you one way or another.”

Willoughby eventually let Arvisais and officer Chrystie Wheeler into the apartment with a third officer remaining at the door. The officers eventually arrested Willoughby. 

Willoughby was charged with multiple counts including second-degree assault. Willoughby pleaded not guilty and moved to suppress the statements he made to the officers in the apartment and argued police subjected him to custodial interrogation without providing Miranda warnings.

After a hearing, a trial court concluded Willoughby was in custody when he made the statements in his apartment citing multiple factors. The court found that although Willoughby wasn’t placed in physical restraints, Willoughby was aware another officer was standing at the front door, the only known exit to the apartment. The trial court granted Willoughby’s motion to suppress. 

Prosecutors then brought an interlocutory appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. The high court applied the factors set forth in the 2002 Colorado Supreme Court case People v. Matheny. The high court concluded under the circumstances, a reasonable person in Willoughby’s position, wouldn’t believe their freedom of movement was restricted to the degree that they were formally arrested. 

The Colorado Supreme Court concluded the trial court erred in suppressing Willoughby’s statements under Miranda and reversed that portion of the trial court’s order and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justices Maria Berkenkotter, Monica Marquez and Richard Gabriel dissented. 

“Caselaw directs that when an officer tells a suspect that they are under arrest, courts are to give that statement great weight in determining whether a reasonable person would think that their freedom had been restricted to the degree associated with formal arrest,” Berkenkotter wrote. “Applying that direction, I conclude that the words spoken by the officers to Willoughby, under these particular circumstances, would cause a reasonable person gauging their degree of freedom to conclude that the officers meant what they said: that they were under arrest.”

Colorado State Board of Education et al. v. Brannberg et al.

The Colorado Supreme Court en banc unanimously reversed a judgment involving the Colorado State Board of Education’s authority.

For this case, the high court needed to look at whether the last sentence of the state’s Charter Schools Act, Colorado Revised Statute section 22-30.5-108(3)(d) that provides a decision by the state board of education is final and not subject to appeal, applied to all decisions the state board makes under the act, which would preclude judicial review of the decisions.

Section 108 of the act created a procedure where a charter school applicant could potentially twice appeal an adverse decision of a local school board to the state board. The parties in this case agreed section 108 precluded judicial review of state board decisions rendered after a second appeal under 108(3)(d). 

They disagreed, however, as to whether this appeal-preclusion language barred judicial review of final state board decisions rendered after a first appeal under 108(3)(a). 

In 2019, the John Dewey Institute submitted a charter school application to the Douglas County School Board, but the local board denied JDI’s application. JDI appealed to the state board and it affirmed the school board’s denial, effectively ending the matter and eliminating a need for a second appeal under 108(3)(c).

JDI filed a complaint for judicial review against the defendants alleging, in the denial of the application, they failed to comply with a number of the act’s procedural requirements. The defendants moved to dismiss for a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The defendants argued the appeal-preclusion clause in 108(3)(d) barred judicial review of the state board’s final decision. The district court agreed and granted the motion to dismiss.

JDI appealed, contending the district court erred, concluding 108(3)(d) precluded judicial review of state board decisions rendered after a first appeal. The appeals court agreed, concluding the appeal-preclusion language in 108(3)(d) doesn’t explicitly or by necessary implication, limit the Colorado court’s jurisdiction to review first-appeal state board decisions. 

The Colorado Supreme Court found that based on the plain language, 108(3)(d)’s appeal-preclusion language applied to all final decisions rendered by the state board under section 22-30.5-108, including when the state board affirmed a local board’s denial of a charter school application during the initial appeal, which thereby ends the matter and makes a second appeal unnecessary. 

The Colorado Supreme Court concluded that since the state board affirmed the school board’s decision denying JDI’s charter school application after the first appeal, and because the determination was the state board’s final decision, the high court contended the state board’s decision isn’t subject to judicial review. 

The Colorado Supreme Court reversed the appeals court decision and remanded the case to district court for the dismissal of JDI’s claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

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