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People v. Coahran

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Fourth Division

January 24, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
April Jo Coahran, Defendant-Appellant.

          El Paso County District Court No. 14CR5013 Honorable Thomas K. Kane, Judge.

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Jillian J. Price, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Jeffrey Svehla, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

          OPINION

          HAWTHORNE JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 Defendant, April Jo Coahran, was convicted of criminal mischief arising from damage she caused to her ex-boyfriend's car door after he grabbed her wrist and wouldn't let go. But according to Coahran, she kicked the car door to distract the ex-boyfriend and also to gain enough leverage to free herself and get away. So, she argued, she acted in self-defense and was entitled to an affirmative defense instruction under section 18-1-704(1), C.R.S. 2018. The prosecution responded that Colorado's self-defense statute applies only to situations involving the use of physical force against other persons, not against property, and so it didn't apply to Coahran's situation. The trial court agreed. Now on appeal, Coahran challenges her conviction because of this alleged instructional error, among other reasons. She also appeals the trial court's restitution order.

         ¶ 2 As a matter of first impression in Colorado, we are faced with the question whether a defendant charged with criminal mischief may be entitled to a jury instruction on self-defense as an affirmative defense. We answer that question "yes." We reverse Coahran's conviction, vacate the restitution order, and remand for a new trial.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 At trial, the facts surrounding what happened between Coahran and her ex-boyfriend were disputed.

         ¶ 4 In November 2014, according to Coahran, her ex-boyfriend owed her money, so she reached out to him and suggested they meet for lunch, at which time the ex-boyfriend could repay her. On the day they planned to meet, Coahran had another appointment. So she suggested they cancel their lunch plans and meet instead at the ex-boyfriend's workplace. The ex-boyfriend rejected this idea, and he went to the restaurant during his lunch break as originally planned.

         ¶ 5 Coahran arrived as soon as she could and saw the ex-boyfriend walking out of the restaurant. According to Coahran, he looked frustrated. When she asked him what was wrong, the ex-boyfriend began yelling at her for being late. Coahran asked the ex-boyfriend for the money, which he refused to give her. Coahran turned to walk away, but the ex-boyfriend grabbed her wrist to stop her. She asked him twice to let her go, but he refused. Worried the situation would escalate and "not wanting to see that side of him," Coahran kicked the ex-boyfriend's car door, hoping to distract him momentarily and gain enough leverage to free herself. The ex-boyfriend let go of her wrist and she quickly returned to her car and drove away.

         ¶ 6 At trial, the prosecution introduced photos of the damage to the ex-boyfriend's car door. Coahran admitted she had kicked the car door, but denied that she had intended to cause any damage to it. Instead, Coahran argued in a pretrial conference that she had kicked the car door in self-defense. Specifically, she argued that after the ex-boyfriend grabbed her wrist and wouldn't let go, she was worried the situation would escalate. She kicked the car door to distract the ex-boyfriend so he'd let her go. Kicking the door also gave her leverage to pull away from the ex-boyfriend's grasp, which she didn't have the power to do on her own.

         ¶ 7 The prosecutor argued, and the trial court agreed, that self-defense as an affirmative defense wasn't available for Coahran's criminal mischief charge because her use of physical force was directed toward property (the car) rather than another person (the ex-boyfriend). The court, however, permitted Coahran to argue that self-defense was an element-negating traverse, that is, her actions were taken in self-defense and negated the "knowingly" mens rea required for the criminal mischief charge.

         ¶ 8 Coahran was convicted of criminal mischief and ordered to pay restitution to the ex-boyfriend.

         ¶ 9 On appeal, Coahran asserts that (1) the court improperly instructed the jury on self-defense; (2) the court erred by prohibiting evidence of the ex-boyfriend's prior bad acts; (3) the prosecution failed to prove the damage amount necessary to sustain a conviction for class 6 felony criminal mischief; (4) comments by the ex-boyfriend and the prosecutor improperly shifted the burden of proof to Coahran to prove her innocence; and (5) the court ordered restitution without a hearing and without requiring the prosecution to prove actual pecuniary loss.

         II. Self-Defense

         ¶ 10 Coahran contends the trial court made two critical errors regarding the self-defense jury instructions, warranting reversal of her conviction, by (1) refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense as an affirmative defense, which impermissibly lowered the prosecution's burden of proof; and (2) misstating the law in its jury instruction.

         ¶ 11 The People respond that Coahran wasn't entitled to an affirmative defense self-defense instruction because the self-defense statute applies only to situations involving physical force used against other persons, not against property. And, the People contend, even if the jury instruction given by the court incorrectly stated the law, it inured to Coahran's benefit because she wasn't entitled to such an instruction in the first place. Thus, the People continue, any error is harmless.

         ¶ 12 Because we conclude that Coahran was entitled to an affirmative defense self-defense jury instruction, we don't address her second contention as to the instruction given to the jury.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶ 13 A trial court has a duty to correctly instruct the jury on the governing law. Townsend v. People, 252 P.3d 1108, 1111 (Colo. 2011). We review jury instructions de novo to determine whether the instructions accurately do so. Riley v. People, 266 P.3d 1089, 1092 (Colo. 2011). We consider all the instructions given by the trial court together to determine whether they properly informed the jury. Id.

         ¶ 14 We review a court's decision whether to give a particular jury instruction for an abuse of discretion. People v. Gwinn, 2018 COA 130, ΒΆ 31. A court abuses its discretion if it bases its ruling on an erroneous ...


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