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People v. Ramos

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

February 6, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner
Ruben Rosendo Ramos, Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 10CA35

         Judgment Affirmed

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Katharine J. Gillespie, Senior Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Adam Mueller, Senior Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado



         ¶1 This case, like our recently announced case Venalonzo v. People, 2016 CO 9, P.3d, requires us to address the difference between lay and expert testimony.[1] Specifically, this case requires us to resolve one issue, whether an ordinary person would be able to differentiate reliably between blood cast-off (i.e., blood droplets from waving a hand around) and blood transfer (i.e., blood transferred by physical contact). Applying the test we announced in Venalonzo, we hold that an ordinary person would not be able to testify reliably about the difference between blood cast-off and blood transfer. Therefore, we affirm the court of appeals' holding that the trial court abused its discretion by not qualifying the police detective's blood testimony as expert testimony.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 On November 13, 2006, Respondent Ruben Rosendo Ramos was riding in the front passenger seat of a car driven by his girlfriend. His girlfriend's three children were seated in the backseat along with R.L., his girlfriend's friend. R.L. testified that Ramos and his girlfriend began to argue, and that Ramos turned around and said to R.L., "I don't know you. I don't like d[y]ke bitches like you. I'll beat your ass." R.L. then testified that Ramos punched her several times in the face and lower neck. When this occurred, Ramos's hand was already bandaged and bleeding from an unrelated injury. Blood from his bandaged hand ended up on R.L.'s jacket and baseball cap. Ramos's theory of defense was that he had not struck R.L. and the blood stains were from waving his hands around.

         ¶3 The People charged Ramos with (1) committing a bias-motivated crime in violation of section 18-9-121(2)(a), C.R.S. (2006), and (2) assault in the third degree in violation of section 18-3-204, C.R.S. (2006). At trial, there were two main pieces of evidence against Ramos. The first piece of evidence was R.L.'s testimony. Second, and the crux of this appeal, was a police detective's testimony that the trial court admitted as lay testimony. The detective viewed photographic evidence of some of the blood on R.L. and opined that it was from transfer (i.e., physical contact) and not the product of cast-off (i.e., Ramos's waving his hand around).

         ¶4 The jury convicted Ramos of both counts. He appealed, and the court of appeals reversed in a two to one decision, People v. Ramos, 2012 COA 191, ¶ 36, P.3d, holding that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the detective to testify as a lay witness on the subject of blood transfer. The People timely appealed. We granted certiorari and now affirm the court of appeals.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶5 We review a trial court's evidentiary decisions for an abuse of discretion. People v. Stewart, 55 P.3d 107, 122 (Colo. 2002). A trial court abuses its discretion only when its ruling is manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, or unfair. Id.

         III. Analysis

         ¶6 Under Colorado Rule of Evidence 701, testimony is proper as lay testimony and not expert testimony if the testimony is "(a) rationally based on the perception of the witness, (b) helpful to a clear understanding of the witness' testimony or the determination of a fact in issue, and (c) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702." Under Colorado Rule of Evidence 702, a party may call an expert witness if "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue . . . ."

         ¶7 "The proper inquiry is not whether a witness draws on her personal experiences to inform her testimony; all witnesses rely on their personal experience when testifying." Venalonzo, ¶ 22. "Rather, it is the nature of the experiences that could form the opinion's basis that determines whether the testimony is lay or expert opinion." Id. "In assessing whether an opinion is one which could be reached by any ordinary person, courts consider whether ordinary citizens can be expected to know certain information or to have had certain experiences." People v. Rincon, 140 P.3d 976, 983 (Colo.App. 2005) (citing United States v. McDonald, 933 F.2d 1519, 1522 (10th Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted). "Expert testimony, by contrast, is that which goes beyond the realm of common experience and requires experience, skills, or knowledge that the ordinary person would not have." Venalonzo, ¶ 22.

         ¶8 Ultimately, to differentiate between lay and expert testimony, Colorado courts use the following test from Venalonzo:

[I]n determining whether testimony is lay testimony under Colorado Rule of Evidence ("CRE") 701 or expert testimony under CRE 702, the trial court must look to the basis for the opinion. If the witness provides testimony that could be expected to be based on an ordinary person's experiences or knowledge, then the witness is offering lay testimony. If, on the other hand, the witness provides testimony that could not be offered without ...

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