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December 2022 Colorado Case Summaries

The law comes in many forms – statutes, rules, and case law. On a weekly basis, the Colorado Supreme Court and Colorado Court of Appeals issue their case announcements. As each case is announced, the lawyers at Burnham Law review the decisions in order to remain current on Colorado case law. The weekly case announcements by the Colorado Supreme Court are made in “slip opinions.” These are typically short and not fully formatted. Slip opinions are not the final version of the case announcement and are subject to changes and corrections.

On a monthly basis, our lawyers provide summaries of certain cases that we believe may be important to our current and future clients. Do not forget to return each month to see Burnham Law’s Colorado appellate case summaries.

Colorado Supreme Court Summary – December 2022

The Colorado Supreme Court ended the 2022 year by issuing five (5) decisions in December. In deciding whether to highlight a case, Burnham Law looks to the subject matter of the case, the legal issue, and the likeliness that the ruling will be applicable to current or future clients. Of the five (5) decisions, Burnham Law chose to highlight the following:

1. FAMILY LAW (Due Process): 2022CO55 – In the Interest of Minor Child E.B.

In this Jefferson County dependency and neglect case, the Department of Human Services requested that Father’s parental rights be terminated. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the termination trial was held via the Court’s Webex’s videoconferencing system. On the day of trial, with his counsel present, technical difficulties prevented Father’s virtual attendance at the hearing. Father tried to appear via the Webex system; however, his phone only had Wi-Fi capability and he was continually removed from the Webex meeting because of weak or the lack of a Wi-Fi signal where he was physically located.

The trial court denied Father’s request to continue the trial, and Father’s rights were terminated. The court determined that because Father failed to show actual prejudice, his due process rights were not violated, and the termination was upheld.

The holding of this case is that even when a parent’s lack of attendance at trial is due to circumstances outside of their control, the court can deny a request to continue the trial unless the absent parent can show actual prejudice.

The attorneys at Burnham Law agree with the legal holding that there should be a showing of actual prejudice for a court to grant a request for a continuance. Children in family law cases deserve to have finality and stability, which must be balanced with the due process rights of parents. By making a parent show actual prejudice before a continuance is granted, the needs of the children are properly balanced against the due process rights of the parents.

Colorado Court of Appeals — December 2022

The Colorado Court of Appeals ended 2022 by issuing fourteen (14) published opinions. Burnham Law has decided to highlight three of the cases. In deciding whether to highlight a case, Burnham Law looks to the subject matter of the case, the legal issue, and the likeliness that the ruling will be applicable to current or future clients.

1. FAMILY LAW (Invalidity of Marriage & Division of Property) 2022COA141 — Nguyen v. Lai

In this Denver County case, the trial court ruled that the parties’ marriage was invalid and that the trial court therefore lacked jurisdiction to divide the parties’ jointly owned property. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court ruling that it lacked jurisdiction to divide the jointly owned property was error and reversed the trial court. In its ruling, the Court of Appeals cited C.R.S. § 14-10-111(6), which specifically grants the trial court the authority to divide any property that would fall under the definition of “marital property” had the marriage been held valid.

Burnham Law represents many clients who are involved in cases where one (or both) spouses ask the court to find their marriage invalid. Many clients assume that if the court determines their marriage to be invalid, there will be no orders dividing property. In fact, many clients are shocked to learn that even when a marriage is determined to be invalid, the court will still divide all property that would fall under the definition of “marital property” had the marriage been valid.

2. CRIMINAL (Extending Probation) 2022COA142— People v. Martinez

In this El Paso County case, defendant Martinez was convicted of a crime and ordered to serve four years on probation. As part of her probation, she was ordered to pay restitution to the victim of the crime. Martinez met with a collections investigator who assessed her ability to pay restitution and placed her on a payment plan. Martinez made all of her required restitution payments; however at the end of her four years of probation, she still had a balance on her restitution. Because of the restitution balance, the court extended Martinez’s probation.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Colorado law does not authorize a court to extend a defendant’s probation simply because the restitution hasn’t been fully paid when the defendant has made all payments as required under their established payment schedule.

The criminal defense team at Burnham Law is pleased with this decision. Colorado law requires a defendant to pay restitution based upon their ability. When the defendant complies with their payment. plan, they should not be forced to serve a longer sentence simply because they do not have the financial means to make payments above and beyond the payment plan.

3. CRIMINAL (Due Process, COVID-19 Precautions) – People v. Garcia

This Denver case highlights the various challenges that the court system faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Defendant Garcia was convicted at trial of various criminal charges and sentenced to nine years in prison. Garcia’s trial was the first Denver jury trial that took place in person after the pandemic began.

It goes without saying that the global COVID-19 pandemic created significant challenges to Colorado’s court system. Courtrooms all across the nation were presented with the challenge of how to safely hold jury trials while still balancing the constitutional rights of the parties. During this time, the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court issued multiple orders concerning the operation of jury trials and other court hearings.

Prior to the trial, the Denver court created a safety plan with the input of health officials and the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. After consultation, the trial court practiced various precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Amongst other issues, Garcia challenged some of the COVID-19 precautions, alleging they violated his constitutional rights. Specifically, Garcia challenged:

  1. Requiring the jury to wear masks covering their noses and mouth,; and
  2. Seating the jury in the courtroom gallery as opposed to the jury box.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the COVID-19 precautions did not violate Garcia’s constitutional rights. In regard to the jury wearing masks, the Court of Appeals held that the juror’s demeanor could still be observed through body language, tone of voice, eye contact, and other “elements of demeanor.” The Court of Appeals also found it important to note that any challenges to assessing the juror’s demeanor were equally shared by both the prosecution and defendant.

As for seating the jury in the courtroom gallery, Garcia challenged this precaution by arguing that the jurors were unable to see his face during the entire trial and that the jurors were seated so far from the witnesses that it negatively affected their ability to evaluate the witnesses’ demeanor. The Court of Appeals found that the positioning of the jurors furthered an important public policy (ensuring the safety of everyone in the courtroom). This public policy, when balanced against the potential harm to the defendant, was found to be reasonable and not a constitutional violation in that it was only a “minimal disturbance.”

Burnham Law chose to highlight this Court of Appeals case due to its unprecedented nature. During the pandemic, Burnham Law met the unique challenges head-on and continued its busy litigation practice throughout the state of Colorado.

The lawyers at Burnham Law understand that being a quality attorney involves a constant study of the law. Burnham Law is always on the radar looking for new law that may affect its current or future clients. Hire Burnham Law and you have a team of attorneys who will stay up to speed on the latest legal trends and developments.

These case summaries are provided as a courtesy by Burnham Law and are not the official words of the court. Full opinions are available at the Colorado Judicial Branch website.

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