Colorado criminal courts can hand out enhanced prison sentences when they determine that the crimes committed had “extraordinary aggravating circumstances.” The state Supreme Court reviewed just how broadly a court can apply aggravating factors to extend a sentence.
For its sole decision for the week of Nov. 19, the Colorado Supreme Court issued an opinion on Colorado’s sentencing scheme in Mountjoy v. People, a case involving a biker gang enforcer’s manslaughter conviction. The court weighed whether it was constitutional for a trial court to impose an aggravated sentence based on elements of the defendant’s other convictions, even if they were convictions arising from the same “criminal episode.” The court held 7-2 that it was constitutional, while Justice Richard Gabriel, joined by Justice Melissa Hart, dissented.
In the underlying case, Christopher Mountjoy ran security for the Sin City Disciples motorcycle clubhouse in Colorado Springs. In March 2012, Mountjoy threw Virgil Means out of the clubhouse after Means was involved in a fight. Means drove off the premises with a friend but later returned to retrieve his wallet from the clubhouse. Mountjoy, who would testify that he thought Means came back to retaliate, drew a gun and opened fire on the vehicle, killing Means. After the shooting, Mountjoy ordered other gang members to clean up the area for evidence, and he deleted texts from his phone that referenced the shooting.
Mountjoy was charged with first-degree murder after deliberation, first-degree extreme indifference murder, robbery, illegal discharge of a weapon and tampering with physical evidence. A jury would convict him of reckless manslaughter as well as the weapon discharge and evidence tampering counts.
But the controversy came when, after the jury rendered the guilty verdict, the prosecution asked to have Mountjoy’s sentences increased past their statutory maximums because there were aggravated circumstances. A Colorado court can use aggravated sentences to exceed the maximum sentence in the charge’s presumptive range, but no more than double the max. The trial court agreed to sentence Mountjoy to double the maximum presumptive range for each of the three counts: 12 years for reckless manslaughter, six years for illegal discharge of a firearm and three years for tampering with physical evidence. The court sentenced Mountjoy to serve those terms consecutively, totaling 21 years in prison.
The trial court reasoned that elements of each conviction served as the extraordinary aggravators for other convictions in the same incident. The reckless manslaughter conviction was extraordinarily aggravated by the fact that Mountjoy used a weapon and tampered with evidence. The illegal discharge conviction was aggravated because someone died in the incident and the defendant later tampered with evidence, and the tampering count was aggravated because of the death.
On appeal, Mountjoy argued the trial court violated his due process rights because it handed him aggravated sentences for each count based on facts the jury didn’t explicitly find to be connected to each other. For a trial court to make that determination without a jury doing so violates the Sixth Amendment as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Apprendi v. New Jersey and Blakely v. Washington, Mountjoy contended.
In Apprendi, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2000 that when criminal courts decide to hand out sentences that exceed the presumptive max, the decision must be based on facts the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt. One exception to that is if the defendant has prior convictions, which the criminal court can still use to justify an exceeding sentence.
In Blakely, a defendant pleaded guilty, and the judge issued a sentence beyond the presumptive maximum because the defendant committed the crime with “deliberate cruelty.” When the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed that case in 2004, it held that a trial court must rely on facts outside of the crime itself in order to impose a max-exceeding sentence. But those aggravating facts still have to be determined by a jury or admitted by the defendant based on Apprendi.
A Colorado Court of Appeals panel upheld Mountjoy’s enhanced sentencing, with the majority finding that even if there were an error, it was harmless; the jury would have connected the facts for the counts anyway, were it instructed to do so, according to the panel.
Weighing Mountjoy’s constitutionality challenge, the state Supreme Court had to determine whether a sentence that is aggravated based on an element of a crime emerging from the same set of circumstances for which there is a separate conviction complies with Blakely and Apprendi.
Mountjoy pointed to U.S. v. Gaudin, in which the Supreme Court held that a conviction requires the jury to find the defendant guilty of all elements of the crime charged. Likewise, a jury must decide whether facts are indeed aggravating, Mountjoy argued. But the Colorado Supreme Court didn’t find the cases analogous: Gaudin’s was about proof of guilt whereas Mountjoy’s was about sentencing, the majority said.
Ultimately, the court majority found that the fact the jury convicted Mountjoy on the other counts was all that was necessary for their elements to serve as aggravators for each conviction. “Lopez and Blakely only require that aggravating facts be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt; they do not require any linkage between the aggravating fact and the crime whose sentence is subsequently aggravated,” according to the majority opinion written by Justice Brian Boatright.
In his dissent, Gabriel said he believed the trial court erred by imposing the aggravated sentences in Mountjoy’s case. He pointed out that the prosecution only sought aggravated sentencing after the jury returned its guilty verdict.
“In these circumstances, it is difficult for me to see how the aggravated-range sentences that the trial court imposed in this case could have complied with Blakely and Apprendi, which, as pertinent here, required the jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt the facts supporting the sentence aggravators.”
The jury wasn’t given the opportunity to decide whether there were extraordinary aggravating circumstances that would merit a harsher sentence than the statutory maximum — the convictions on their own were not enough, Gabriel argued.
“In my view, this statute makes clear that the sentencing enhancer at issue is the existence of ‘extraordinary . . . aggravating circumstances,’ not, as the majority states, whether a person died, the defendant used a weapon, or the defendant tampered with evidence,” Gabriel wrote. “ … [T]he existence of extraordinary aggravating circumstances was the fact that the jury was required to find, and it is undisputed that it did not do so here.”
— Doug Chartier