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People v. Garcia

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 11, 2017

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
Sylvia Garcia, Defendant-Appellee

         Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court Adams County District Court No. 16CR2813 Honorable Robert W. Kiesnowski Jr., Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Dave Young, District Attorney, Seventeenth Judicial District Michael Whitney, Deputy District Attorney Brighton, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Allen Chaney, Deputy Public Defender Brighton, Colorado


          HOOD, JUSTICE

         ¶1 When Northglenn police officers went to Defendant Sylvia Garcia's house to do a welfare check on a child, they found an elderly woman in distress on the living room floor. They also noticed a padlock on the refrigerator in the kitchen and feces and bugs throughout the house. Medical personnel, additional police officers, firefighters, and a building inspector soon poured into the residence.

         ¶2 Garcia made several statements to the officers at the house, including that she was a caretaker of the elderly woman (her mother) and that the padlock was to keep her brother from eating food in the refrigerator. Garcia was later charged with two offenses relating to neglect of her mother and one count of child abuse.

         ¶3 The trial court granted Garcia's motion to suppress the statements she made during this encounter with the police at her house, concluding Garcia had been subjected to custodial interrogation and had not received a Miranda advisement. The People appeal that order.

         ¶4 Because we conclude Garcia was not in custody for Miranda purposes during the encounter, we reverse the trial court's order suppressing the statements.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶5 The following facts are based on the trial court's findings and undisputed testimony at the motions hearing.

         ¶6 Northglenn police officers received a report of a child living in dangerous conditions at Garcia's home. This prompted officers to conduct a welfare check. While speaking with a teenager who answered the door, three officers-including Officers Thomas and Smith-heard what sounded like a woman moaning. They forced entry into the house and found an elderly woman, Garcia's mother, [1] on a mattress on the living room floor. She was surrounded by dogs jumping on or around her, and she appeared to be asking for help. The house smelled of urine, feces covered the floors, and the walls crawled with bugs. They called for medical assistance and additional officers.

         ¶7 Garcia came downstairs. Officers Smith and Thomas both asked Garcia if anyone else was in the house. Garcia told Officer Thomas no one else was home. Officer Smith said to Garcia, "Look, I don't want to place the paramedics and patrol officers in a dangerous situation. Is anybody home?" Garcia first responded no, but when Officer Smith asked again, she said her brother was upstairs.

         ¶8 Officers Lauck and Spresser joined the scene. Garcia gave Officer Lauck permission to go upstairs and search. Officers conducted a sweep of the rest of the house with their weapons in a "low ready" position, where the gun is held ready to fire, but pointed toward the ground. Officers Lauck and Spresser found Garcia's brother, Joseph, upstairs in a room filled with cups of urine, broken glass, feces, and insects. With his fingers stuffed in his mouth, Joseph was standing on a mattress and shaking. He told the officers he is schizophrenic. The officers discovered Joseph had an unrelated outstanding arrest warrant, so they took him into custody.

         ¶9 After coming back downstairs and seeing the padlock on the refrigerator, Officer Spresser asked Garcia why it was there. Garcia told Officer Spresser it was to keep her brother from eating the food in the refrigerator. According to Officer Spresser, she spoke with Garcia in a conversational tone in either the living room or the kitchen and that was the only question she asked Garcia.

         ¶10 Firefighters and a building inspector arrived. At some point during the incident, the building inspector condemned the house, put notices on the front door, and said no one could be inside.

         ¶11 The trial court found that the police ordered Garcia outside. Officer Thomas testified at the motions hearing:

I don't remember asking her to come outside. It was kind of a chaotic scene. There [were] a lot of people there coming in and out. I don't know if she was already outside and then I approached her outside. I don't remember asking her to step out and talk.

         According to Officer Thomas, he was a couple of feet away from Garcia outside the house and there were likely two other officers around. Garcia largely ignored Officer Thomas, just responding, "I don't know, " to his questions. She also kept using her phone. Officer Thomas couldn't recall whether he asked her or told her to stop using her phone and to talk to him. Regardless, she continued using her phone. Officer Thomas asked Garcia who took care of the mother. Garcia responded she was the caretaker. The conversation lasted a few minutes.

         ¶12 Officer Smith also spoke with Garcia outside, although he could not recall whether it was before or after Garcia spoke with Officer Thomas. He admitted he raised his voice when Garcia kept denying knowing what was going on and said something along the lines of "Come on, seriously?" Officer Smith also testified that he said, "Look, just tell me what's going on here. It's obvious this situation isn't good." Garcia told Officer Smith that she and her sister were the caretakers of the mother, but otherwise, continued to deny knowing what was going on. According to Officer Smith, the conversation lasted five to seven minutes, he was three or four feet away from Garcia, and there were several other officers outside during this conversation.

         ¶13 No one restrained Garcia during this encounter. Although the police officers were armed, they did not direct any of their weapons at Garcia. ...

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