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People v. Alaniz

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Third Division

June 30, 2016

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Antero Alaniz, Defendant-Appellee.

         Logan County District Court No. 13CR284 Honorable Charles M. Hobbs, Judge

          Brittny B. Lewton, District Attorney, Sterling, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

          Douglas K. Wilson, Colorado State Public Defender, Jud Lohnes, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee

          OPINION

          RICHMAN, JUDGE

         ¶ 1 The People appeal the district court's order dismissing charges of second degree murder and first degree assault against defendant, Antero Alaniz, an inmate at Sterling Correctional Facility. The court dismissed the charges pursuant to section 18-1-704.5, C.R.S. 2015, known as Colorado's "make-my-day" statute[1], which provides that under certain circumstances an occupant of a dwelling who uses any degree of physical force, including deadly physical force, against an intruder shall be immune from prosecution.

         ¶ 2 We conclude that Alaniz's prison cell constituted a dwelling for purposes of section 18-1-704.5 and the district court did not err in finding that Alaniz established the requirements for immunity. Therefore, we affirm the order of dismissal.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 Alaniz is an inmate in the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) serving a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole imposed in a separate case. The People filed the charges in this case after another inmate, Cleveland Flood, was found dead in a cell shared by Alaniz and Aaron Bernal at Sterling Correctional Facility in 2011.

         ¶ 4 Alaniz moved to dismiss the charges pursuant to section 18-1-704.5, and the People filed a written response opposing the motion. The court held an evidentiary hearing and heard testimony from Alaniz, several other inmates, and a CDOC investigator. The court also admitted surveillance video from outside the cell and photographs taken during the investigation.

         ¶ 5 According to the testimony at the hearing, and as the trial court found in its lengthy written order, Alaniz and Bernal shared a cell in a housing unit where inmates could control the locks on their own cell doors unless the unit was on lockdown. Alaniz and Bernal were described as close friends who generally kept to themselves and did not cause trouble for prison staff or other inmates.

         ¶ 6 Flood lived in a different cell in the same housing unit. Both the CDOC investigator and the other inmates described Flood as a bully who had a reputation for extorting other inmates, particularly those who were either mentally or physically weaker than he was. He was larger than Alaniz and Bernal, and he was not a friend of either of them.

         ¶ 7 Alaniz testified that on the evening of February 12, 2011, he and Bernal were in their cell watching a movie while the unit was on lockdown for the nightly count. When the lockdown ended, Bernal unlocked the cell door from the inside, and it popped open a few inches. According to Alaniz's testimony, a short time later, Flood entered the cell uninvited, closed the door behind him, brandished a shank, and demanded commissary items. Alaniz did not testify about what followed. A surveillance video from outside the cell, admitted into evidence, showed Flood entering the cell, but it did not show what happened inside.

         ¶ 8 Alaniz and Bernal emerged from the cell a few minutes later and contacted prison authorities. Flood was found dead inside the cell with approximately ninety puncture wounds and ligature marks around his neck. Investigators also found two shanks in the cell. Bernal had abrasions and puncture wounds, and Alaniz had marks on his body consistent with a struggle.

         ¶ 9 In their written response to Alaniz's motion to dismiss and at the hearing, the People argued that Alaniz failed to prove two requirements for immunity under section 18-1-704.5. First, they argued that Flood did not make an unlawful entry into the cell. Second, they argued that Alaniz did not have a reasonable belief that Flood intended to commit a crime in the cell and might use force against an occupant.

         ¶ 10 The court issued a written order dismissing the charges. The court stated that the People had conceded that a prison cell was a dwelling for purposes of "make-my-day" immunity under section 18-1-704.5:

[T]he prosecution does not challenge perhaps the most novel theory of this motion: that an inmate in the Department of Corrections is even entitled to invoke this legal protection. The defense argues that a jail cell qualifies as a dwelling pursuant to People v. Nichols, 920 P.2d 901 (Colo. 1996). In that case the Court found that for purposes of the burglary statute an inmate's cell constituted a dwelling. Here the prosecution does not challenge that analysis. In this case the testimony is that the inmates had keys to their cells that they could control whether or not other inmates were allowed to enter into their cell, and that they kept their personal and confidential items in their cell. Because the prosecution concedes that a prison cell is a dwelling for purposes of this statute, they are essentially conceding that an inmate is entitled to invoke the protections of the castle doctrine.

         ¶ 11 Based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the court concluded that the other requirements of "make-my-day" immunity were met. It found that the victim made an uninvited, unlawful, and "highly provocative" entry into the cell while brandishing a weapon. It also found that Alaniz reasonably believed that the victim intended to commit a crime in the cell and might use physical force against an occupant. The court concluded that Alaniz met his burden in showing by a preponderance of the evidence that he was entitled to immunity under section 18-1-704.5, and it dismissed the charges against him.

         ¶ 12 On appeal, the People contend that the district court erred in dismissing the charges pursuant to section 18-1-704.5 because a prison cell is not a dwelling for purposes of that statute, and because permitting "make-my-day" immunity in a prison setting would be contrary to public policy. They also contend that Alaniz was not entitled to dismissal because he failed to prove that he used any force against the victim. We reject these contentions and therefore affirm the order of dismissal.

         II. Section 18-1-704.5 Immunity

         ¶ 13 Section 18-1-704.5 provides:

(1) The general assembly hereby recognizes that the citizens of Colorado have a right to expect absolute safety within their own homes.
(2). . . [A]ny occupant of a dwelling is justified in using any degree of physical force, including deadly physical force, against another person when that other person has made an unlawful entry into the dwelling, and when the occupant has a reasonable belief that such other person has committed a crime in the dwelling in addition to the uninvited entry, or is committing or intends to commit a crime against a person or property in addition to the uninvited entry, and when the ...

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