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People v. Kubuugu

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

January 28, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Petitioner,
v.
Simon Kubuugu, Respondent.

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 12CA1489

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General Rebecca A. Adams, Senior Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Brian Cox, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

          OPINION

          BOATRIGHT JUSTICE

         ¶1 We must decide whether the trial court, in a case involving drinking and driving, abused its discretion when it allowed a police officer to testify as a lay witness about his ability to detect the smell of metabolized alcohol and, based on that metabolized odor, opine on how much alcohol the defendant ingested and when he did so.[1] We hold that the court abused its discretion and that the error was not harmless. We therefore affirm the court of appeals' decision.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶2 Deputy Luton witnessed a car driven by Simon Kubuugu exit a parking lot, pull out in front of traffic, and make a U-turn that forced other drivers to swerve to avoid a collision. Kubuugu's seven-year-old child was riding in the car with him. Kubuugu then drove slowly past Deputy Luton and parked in an apartment complex.

         ¶3 Deputy Luton went over to Kubuugu's car to make contact with him, and Kubuugu reacted by backing his car over a bush, apparently in an attempt to leave the apartment complex. That attempt failed because the exit was blocked by a second police car that had responded to Deputy Luton's call for assistance. Kubuugu then got out of his car and quickly walked away with a beer can in his hand, leaving his child in the car. Eventually, Kubuugu was stopped by Deputy Luton. Kubuugu did not exhibit any slurred speech or trouble walking. Another deputy searched Kubuugu's car and found two or three empty beer cans. No one administered a breath or blood alcohol test or any sobriety test, and it is unclear why. Kubuugu was arrested and charged with criminal impersonation, [2] child abuse, driving under restraint, reckless driving, and driving under the influence.

         ¶4 At trial, Kubuugu testified that he only started drinking once he parked his car in the apartment complex, that he only drank a few sips from the beer which was found in his hand, and that the empty beer cans in his vehicle were from another day. Deputy Luton testified at trial, without being qualified as an expert, and opined that Kubuugu had been intoxicated while driving. Specifically, on direct examination, Deputy Luton testified that he believed Kubuugu had driven while intoxicated because Kubuugu (1) drove erratically, (2) had a beer can in his hand when he was contacted, (3) had empty beer cans in his vehicle, and (4) smelled of alcohol. Regarding the smell of alcohol, Deputy Luton testified that he had years of experience and training in the detection of drinking and driving, most notably through "wet lab" training, [3] and as a result he could distinguish between the smell of alcohol exuding from a person versus the smell of spilled alcohol because the former has a "metabolized" odor. Defense counsel objected to Deputy Luton's mention of the ability to detect the smell of metabolized alcohol, arguing that Deputy Luton was providing expert testimony under the guise of lay testimony. The trial court overruled the objection.

         ¶5 Later, Deputy Luton elaborated on his ability to detect metabolized alcohol in response to a question from the jury. The jury asked Deputy Luton whether the odor coming from Kubuugu's mouth would be the same if the beer had been consumed five minutes earlier compared to thirty minutes earlier. The defense objected to this question but was overruled. Deputy Luton then testified about how the body metabolizes alcohol and how that affects its odor, how the metabolized odor becomes stronger the more someone drinks, and that the smell of someone's breath who had recently consumed alcohol is distinct from that of someone who had consumed alcohol earlier. Deputy Luton concluded that the strong odor of metabolized alcohol coming from Kubuugu indicated that, before entering the apartment complex, Kubuugu consumed a volume of alcohol consistent with the number of empty beer cans found in his car.

         ¶6 The jury found Kubuugu guilty of criminal impersonation, child abuse, driving under restraint, driving while ability impaired (a lesser-included offense of driving under the influence), and reckless driving. Kubuugu appealed, arguing, as relevant here, that the trial court improperly admitted Deputy Luton's expert testimony under the guise of lay testimony.

         ¶7 The court of appeals held that Deputy Luton was improperly allowed to offer expert testimony on alcohol consumption. People v. Kubuugu, No. 12CA1489, slip op. At 7-9, 13 (Colo.App. Feb. 4, 2016). It further concluded that the error was not harmless. Id. at 13-14. Accordingly, the court of appeals reversed Kubuugu's convictions for child abuse, driving while ability impaired, and reckless driving. Id. at 15. We granted certiorari and now affirm.

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶8 We review a trial court's evidentiary decisions for an abuse of discretion. People v. Stewart, 55 P.3d 107, 122 (Colo. 2002). We review a trial court's abuse of discretion on a preserved, nonconstitutional issue for ...


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