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People v. Slaughter

Court of Appeals of Colorado, First Division

February 21, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Darius Javonmarquise Slaughter, Defendant-Appellee.

          Arapahoe County District Court No. 16CR2045 Honorable Andrew C. Baum, Judge

          George H. Brauchler, District Attorney, Jacob Edson, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Centennial, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellant

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Jessica Sommer, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee

          OOPINION

          TERRY, JUDGE

         ¶ 1 A prosecutor seeking to charge an accused with felony strangulation has multiple charging options available under Colorado criminal statutes.

         ¶ 2 The crime can be charged under the first degree assault statute, section 18-3-202(1)(g), C.R.S. 2018. To obtain a conviction under that statute, the prosecution would have to prove that the accused caused serious bodily injury to the victim.

         ¶ 3 If the prosecution wants to dispense with the requirement to prove serious bodily injury, it can charge the accused under the second degree assault statute, section 18-3-203, C.R.S. 2018. Two charging options are available for a strangulation crime under that statute, neither of which would require proof of serious bodily injury: under subsection (1)(b) or under subsection (1)(i).

         ¶ 4 A charge under subsection (1)(b) would require proof of use of a deadly weapon. Unless charged with a crime of violence sentence enhancer, a strangulation charge under subsection (1)(i) would not require proof of use of a deadly weapon.

         ¶ 5 As we will discuss, the penalty available for a strangulation charged under subsection (1)(i) if charged as a crime of violence under section 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A), C.R.S. 2018, is substantially more severe than if an accused is charged merely under subsection (1)(b), even though conviction for both crimes would require proof of use of a deadly weapon.

         ¶ 6 The prosecution charged defendant, Darius Javonmarquise Slaughter, with strangulation under the second degree assault statute, section 18-3-203(1)(i). If it were allowed to charge Slaughter under subsection (1)(i) and also charge a sentence enhancer under the crime of violence sentencing statute, such charging would subject him to harsher and disparate sentencing, as compared with other persons accused of engaging in the same conduct, based solely on the prosecution's charging decision. Thus, his right to equal protection under the Colorado Constitution would be violated. For that reason, we conclude that the district court did not err in denying the prosecution's motion to add a charge under the crime of violence statute, and we affirm the court's order dismissing the added crime of violence charge.

         I. Procedural History

         ¶ 7 The People filed this interlocutory appeal in accordance with section 16-12-102(1), C.R.S. 2018, and C.A.R. 4(b)(3). The prosecution charged Slaughter with second degree assault by strangulation under section 18-3-203(1)(i) for allegedly strangling the victim with his hands. The People later moved to add a new count under the crime of violence sentencing statute, section 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A), based on their assertion that Slaughter used his hands as a deadly weapon.

         ¶ 8 Though the trial court initially granted the motion, it later reconsidered that ruling on Slaughter's motion and dismissed the charged sentence enhancer. The court reasoned that, as applied to Slaughter, such a charge violated his right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Colorado Constitution.

         II. Constitutional and Statutory Background

         ¶ 9 Under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

         ¶ 10 In harmony with the Federal Constitution, our supreme court has held that the right to equal protection of the laws is included within due process of law as provided in article II, section 25, of the Colorado Constitution. People v. Marcy, 628 P.2d 69, 83 (Colo. 1981). Even so, distinguishing United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114 (1979), which construed the Federal Constitution, the court in Marcy emphasized that, under the Colorado Constitution, "equal protection of the laws requires that statutory classifications of crimes be based on differences that are real in fact and reasonably related to the general purposes of criminal legislation." Marcy, 628 P.2d at 74. In this respect, equal protection under the Colorado Constitution is more far-reaching than it is under the Federal Constitution. Slaughter argues an equal protection violation only under the Colorado Constitution.

         ¶ 11 Equal protection of the law assures that those who are similarly situated will be afforded like treatment. People v. Mozee, 723 P.2d 117, 126 (Colo. 1986). When two criminal statutes provide different penalties for identical conduct, a defendant is denied equal protection under the law if he is convicted under the harsher statute. Id. And, "when separate statutes prescribe different penalties for what ostensibly might be different acts but offer no intelligent standard for distinguishing between and among these acts, those statutes deny equal protection under the law." People v. Griego, 2018 CO 5, ¶ 35 (citing Marcy, 628 P.2d at 75).

         ¶ 12 Under the Colorado Constitution, "if a criminal statute [provides] different penalties for identical conduct, a person convicted under the harsher penalty is denied equal protection unless there are reasonable differences or distinctions between the proscribed behavior[s]." People v. Stewart, 55 P.3d 107, 114 (Colo. 2002).

         ¶ 13 In keeping with Colorado's equal protection guarantee, we scrutinize the statute under which defendant was charged, as well as the statute under which the prosecution seeks to charge him and the broader statutory scheme, to determine whether these standards are met.

         III. Standards of Review and Principles of Statutory Construction

         ¶ 14 We review the constitutionality of statutes de novo. Colo. Union of Taxpayers Found. v. City of Aspen, 2018 CO 36, ¶ 13. Statutes are presumed constitutional, id., and a party challenging the constitutionality of a statute must prove unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt, TABOR Found. v. Reg'l Transp. Dist., 2018 CO 29, ¶ 15.

         ¶ 15 We construe defendant's arguments as raising a challenge to the relevant statutes as applied to the prosecution's charging decision. To prevail on an as-applied constitutional challenge, the challenging party must establish that the statute is unconstitutional under the circumstances in which the plaintiff has acted or proposes to act. Qwest Servs. v. Blood, 252 P.3d 1071, 1085 (Colo. 2011). ¶ 16 The interpretation of sections 18-3-203(1)(i) and 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A) is a question of law which we review de novo. Cowen v. People, 2018 CO 96, ¶ 11. When interpreting a statute, our primary purpose is to ascertain and give effect to the General Assembly's intent. Id. We start by examining the plain meaning of the statutory language. Id. We give consistent effect to all parts of the statute and construe each provision in harmony with the overall statutory design. Id., ¶ 13.

         IV. The Disparate Charging Options Available for the Same Strangulation Conduct Render the Statutory Scheme Ambiguous

         ¶ 17 Before 2016, a prosecutor seeking to charge an accused for strangulation of a victim could charge under the first degree assault statute, section 18-3-202. Subsection (1)(a) of that statute provided, and still provides:

(1) A person commits the crime of assault in the
first degree if: (a) With intent to cause serious bodily injury to another person, he causes serious bodily injury to any ...

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