May 3, 2021 Court Opinions – Colorado Supreme Court

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

People v. Moore 

Aundre Moore was charged with first degree murder. Moore pleaded not guilty, claiming that due to a mental condition, he subjectively feared that he was in danger and acted in self defense. 

Moore’s defense planned to include expert testimony by psychologist Dr. Jane Wells and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Leah Brar. The doctors found Moore had other specified trauma and stressor-related disorders tied to gun violence. They diagnosed Moore with a series of secondary conditions including bipolar disorder and multiple drug and alcohol use disorders. The prosecution moved to exclude evidence about Moore’s mental condition, arguing it would not be admissible since Moore had not entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). 

The Colorado Supreme Court considered whether the expert testimony could suggest Moore was not guilty by reason of insanity — meaning his mental state prohibited him from distinguishing right from wrong or, due to mental disease or defect, he could not form a culpable mental state essential for a first-degree murder charge. 

Ultimately, the court ruled, the threshold for a NGRI plea requires that a defendant’s mental state be “so severely abnormal that it grossly and demonstrably impaired the defendant’s perception or understanding of reality,” with the exception of voluntary ingestion of alcohol or other drugs. The Colorado Supreme Court found that evidence of a lesser mental illness, as shown with Moore, is admissible without a NGRI plea. In future proceedings, the lower court is tasked with closely reviewing evidence about a defendant’s mental health to determine if a not guilty plea is appropriate or if the evidence presented is so extreme that it fits the definition of an NGRI plea.

Colorado v. 5 Star Feedlot Inc.

Eastern Colorado was bombarded with a three-day, record setting storm in 2015, which poured nearly six inches of rain over a cattle feedlot near the South Fork of the Republican River. 

The feedlot, owned by 5 Star Feedlot Inc., stored wastewater in 24 million-gallon ponds that were soon filled with rainwater. One of the ponds overflowed, sending 500,000 gallons of rainwater and wastewater across several miles of land and into the South Fork Republican River. 

Days later, representatives from the state found 379 dead fish in the river and an additional 1,389 dead fish at the downstream Hale Ponds. Based on the sample of dead wildlife collected, the state estimated that 15,000 total fish died as a result of the wastewater breach. The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife filed a complaint and brought a civil suit against 5 Star for the value of the dead fish recovered after the wastewater breach.

The State alleged that 5 Star violated statutory provisions that ban “taking” — killing or possessing — protected wildlife. The cited regulations outline specific actions as unlawful, however, the State argued it was not obligated to provide evidence that 5 Star committed a voluntary act (actus rea) while in a culpable state of mind (mens rea). 5 Star maintained that the state needed to present evidence of an unlawful and voluntary act. The district judge ruled in favor of the State and ordered 5 Star to pay $625,755 in damages — a decision that was appealed by 5 Star. 

On appeal, 5 Star claimed that, since it had not committed an unlawful act to gain possession of the fish, it had not violated the statutory provisions. 5 Star also contested facts presented in the original case, claiming the state did not provide sufficient evidence about the cause of death for the fish. A split Court of Appeals ruled in favor of 5 Star in 2019, accepting the first argument presented. That court emphasized that although statutory provisions include liability crimes, since the state did not argue or prove that 5 Star performed an unlawful voluntary act, the provisions did not apply. 

After the initial appeal, the state petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to consider two questions: Do statutory provisions enforce strict liability or did the state need to prove 5 Star took culpable actions; and did the state need to prove 5 Star committed an unlawful voluntary act or simply a voluntary act? 

The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court’s conclusion that the State needed to evidence an unlawful act, it ultimately ruled in favor of 5 Star. Since the wastewater breach was the result of an unpredictably heavy storm, the court concluded that the death of the fish was due to “an act of God” and 5 Star had not breached the statutory provisions.

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