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People v. Butler

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Fourth Division

July 27, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Caleb Charles Butler, Defendant-Appellant.

         El Paso County District Court No. 13CR1193 Honorable Michael P. McHenry, Judge

          Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, Ethan E. Zweig, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Walta LLC, Mark G. Walta, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant.


          TERRY JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 A jury convicted defendant, Caleb Charles Butler, of violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act (COCCA), sections 18-17-101 to -109, C.R.S. 2016, and of money laundering in violation of section 18-5-309, C.R.S. 2016, for his role in an operation that bought and sold illegally-obtained gift and merchandise cards (return cards), as well as stolen goods. Defendant asserts that his convictions must be reversed because there is insufficient evidence to support his two money laundering convictions and because the elemental jury instruction for money laundering was incomplete. He further asserts that the COCCA conviction cannot stand if there is insufficient evidence to support either of the two money laundering convictions that served as predicate acts for that conviction.

         ¶ 2 As a matter of first impression in Colorado, we address the required showing for a conviction of money laundering under section 18-5-309. We then conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support defendant's convictions for money laundering and that the trial court did not commit plain error in instructing the jury on these charges. Accordingly, we affirm defendant's convictions.

         I. Caveat

         ¶ 3 Defendant worked as the assistant manager of Just Computers, a Colorado Springs store owned by Clayton Schaner. Schaner was accused of various crimes in connection with Just Computers, but defendant was tried separately from Schaner. We recognize that Schaner's conviction is currently on appeal in this court. See People v. Schaner, appeal docketed, No. 14CA0963 (Colo. App.). We comment only on the evidence presented in defendant's trial, and nothing in this opinion is meant as a judgment or commentary on whether the prosecution met its burden of proof in Schaner's trial.

         II. Background

         ¶ 4 In late 2012, police received a tip from a confidential informant that Schaner, through Just Computers, was purchasing stolen items from individuals referred to as "boosters" and then reselling the items. The boosters would steal items from retail stores and either directly sell the items to Schaner or return the items to the store in exchange for a return card, which someone at Just Computers would purchase. Schaner would then post the items and return cards for sale on eBay or Plastic Jungle - both Internet-based commerce platforms (e-commerce websites).

         ¶ 5 Defendant was the assistant manager in charge of the front part of the store. That part of the store operated as a legitimate computer repair business, although employees working in the front of the store sometimes bought return cards and sold non-computer merchandise. Schaner generally operated out of a small room located behind the front of the store. That back room was generally where the boosters would bring the return cards and merchandise.

         ¶ 6 Although Schaner was principally responsible for the operation of buying and selling the return cards and merchandise, defendant assisted in the transactions by purchasing return cards, checking the value of the cards, storing and shipping the cards and merchandise, and creating Internet posts advertising the sale of the cards and merchandise. Schaner transferred large sums of money to his employees, including defendant, and defendant made frequent trips to an automated teller machine (ATM) to retrieve cash that he gave back to Schaner.

         ¶ 7 With the help of a confidential informant, Detective Jason Blanscet was introduced as a booster to Schaner at Just Computers. Over the next three months, Detective Blanscet made multiple trips to Just Computers and sold a number of items to Schaner, including razor blades, a DeWalt power drill, and Home Depot gift cards. Schaner negotiated prices with and paid Detective Blanscet for the items and return cards. During the transactions, Detective Blanscet used language indicating that he had stolen the items from stores or that the return cards were in exchange for stolen items.

         ¶ 8 The Police arrested defendant, Schaner, and three others involved in the operation. The court severed the trial and tried defendant and two others together, but it tried Schaner and another employee separately. Defendant was charged with one count of violating COCCA, two counts of theft by receiving, three counts of money laundering, and five counts of computer crimes. The jury convicted him of two counts of money laundering relating to the razor blades and the DeWalt power drill, and a violation of COCCA based on the two predicate acts of money laundering. Defendant was acquitted of the other charges.

         III. Sufficiency of the Evidence of Money Laundering

         ¶ 9 Defendant contends that there was insufficient evidence to support his two convictions of money laundering. We disagree.

         A. Standards of Review

         ¶ 10 We review de novo whether the evidence before the jury was sufficient both in quantity and quality to sustain a conviction. Clark v. People, 232 P.3d 1287, 1291 (Colo. 2010). We must determine "whether the relevant evidence, both direct and circumstantial, when viewed as a whole and in the light most favorable to the prosecution, is substantial and sufficient to support a conclusion by a reasonable mind that the defendant is guilty of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. (quoting People v. Bennett, 183 Colo. 125, 130, 515 P.2d 466, 469 (1973)).

         ¶ 11 We must give the People the benefit of every reasonable inference that may be drawn from the evidence. Id. at 1292. The determination of the credibility of witnesses rests solely within the province of the jury. People v. Sprouse, 983 P.2d 771, 778 (Colo. 1999). We may not serve as a thirteenth juror, and accordingly, we cannot determine what weight should be given to various pieces of evidence or resolve conflicts in the evidence. Id.

         ¶ 12 We review statutory provisions de novo. Shelby Res., LLC v. Wells Fargo Bank, 160 P.3d 387, 389 (Colo.App. 2007). In interpreting a statute, our primary goals are to discern and give effect to the General Assembly's intent. Krol v. CF & I Steel, 2013 COA 32, ¶ 15. We look first to the statutory language, giving the words and phrases used therein their plain and ordinary meanings. Id. We read the language in the dual contexts of the statute as a whole and the comprehensive statutory scheme, giving consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of the statute's language. Id. After doing this, if we determine that the statute is not ambiguous, we enforce it as written and do not resort to other rules of statutory construction. Id.

         B. Law

         ¶ 13 The People charged defendant under a complicity theory. Therefore, the jury could find him guilty if he (1) aided, abetted, advised, or encouraged Schaner to commit money laundering, and (2) acted with (a) the intent to aid, abet, advise, or encourage Schaner to engage in money laundering; and (b) an awareness of the circumstances attending Schaner's money laundering, including the required mental state for commission of the offense. See § 18-1-603, C.R.S. 2016; People v. Childress, 2015 CO 65M, ¶ 34.

         ¶ 14 In determining whether defendant acted as a complicitor to money laundering, we must consider whether there was sufficient evidence presented in this trial for a reasonable juror to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that money laundering was committed. See People v. Wheeler, 772 P.2d 101 (Colo. 1989); People v. Theus-Roberts, 2015 COA 32, ¶ 35; see also People v. Scheidt, 182 Colo. 374, 382, 513 P.2d 446, 450-51 (1973) (prosecution allowed to introduce otherwise inadmissible evidence at the complicitor-defendant's trial for the limited purpose of establishing the guilt of the principal).

         ¶ 15 Because interpretation of the money laundering statute is a matter of first impression, we begin by addressing the required elements to sustain a conviction under section 18-5-309.

         ¶ 16 The relevant portion of Colorado's money laundering statute states as follows:

(1) A person commits money laundering if he or she:
(a) Conducts or attempts to conduct a financial transaction that involves money or any other thing of value that he or she knows or believes to be the proceeds, in any form, of a criminal offense:
(I) With the intent to promote the commission of a criminal offense; or
(II) With knowledge or a belief that the transaction is designed in ...

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