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People v. Austin Lee

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Sixth Division

August 22, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Dearies Deshonne Austin Lee, Defendant-Appellee.

          Arapahoe County District Court No. 18CR1431 Honorable Ben L. Leutwyler, Judge.

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

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Alison E. Blackwell, Deputy State Public Defender, Centennial, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellee

          OPINION

          FREYRE JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 In this People's appeal, brought under section 16-12-102(1), C.R.S. 2018, and C.A.R. 4(b)(3), we are asked to decide an issue left unresolved by another division in People v. Slaughter, 2019 COA 27. The Slaughter division held that charging a defendant with second degree assault by strangulation under section 18-3-203(1)(i), C.R.S. 2018, (strangulation subsection), and a crime of violence count under section 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A), C.R.S. 2018, violated his right to equal protection because the penalty was substantially more severe than if the defendant were charged with second degree assault under section 18-3-203(1)(b) (deadly weapon subsection), a per se crime of violence, for the same conduct. Consequently, the division affirmed the district court's order dismissing the crime of violence counts attached to the strangulation charges.

         ¶ 2 Here, we must decide whether a defendant may be charged with strangulation under both the deadly weapon and strangulation subsections of the second degree assault statute.[1] We hold that a defendant may not be charged under both subsections for two reasons. First, we conclude that charging the same conduct under both subsections would violate a defendant's right to equal protection because the subsections carry different maximum penalties. Second, we conclude, from the legislative history, that when the General Assembly amended the second degree assault statute to add the strangulation subsection, it intended all strangulation conduct to be charged under this specific subsection, rather than under the more general deadly weapon subsection. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's order dismissing the second degree assault deadly weapon and crime of violence counts filed against the defendant, Dearies Deshonne Austin Lee.

         I. Procedural Background

         ¶ 3 The prosecution originally charged Mr. Lee with two counts of second degree assault under section 18-3-203(1)(i) (strangulation subsection), one count of child abuse under section 18-6-401(1), (7)(b)(I), C.R.S. 2018, and a crime of violence sentence enhancer under section 18-1.3-406(2)(a)(I)(A). The prosecution later added a habitual child abuser sentence enhancer, under section 18-6-401.2, C.R.S. 2018, and two second degree assault charges under section 18-3-203(1)(b) (deadly weapon subsection). It also amended the crime of violence count to attach to all four second degree assault counts.

         ¶ 4 Shortly after Slaughter was announced, Mr. Lee moved to dismiss the second degree assault deadly weapon counts and the crime of violence sentence enhancer. After a hearing, the court granted Mr. Lee's motion. It concluded that a conviction under the deadly weapon subsection could produce a more severe penalty than a conviction under the strangulation subsection for the same conduct and thus, that a potential equal protection violation existed. It dismissed the crime of violence counts based on Slaughter.

         ¶ 5 On appeal, the People contend that the district court erroneously interpreted Slaughter. They rely on dicta in the case stating, "the prosecution, at least in theory, could have charged [the defendant] with second degree assault (not specifying acts amounting to strangulation) under section 18-3-203(1)(b) [the deadly weapon subsection]." Id. at ¶ 20. We agree with Slaughter's holding. But, to the extent the Slaughter division intended to suggest that a defendant can be charged with strangulation under both the deadly weapon and strangulation subsections, we disagree with it, because the legislative history, extensively discussed in Slaughter, reveals a contrary intent. Moreover, charging a defendant with the same strangulation conduct under both subsections would violate a defendant's right to equal protection, an issue the Slaughter division did not consider.

         II. Second Degree Assault Strangulation Conduct May Be Charged Only Under Section 18-3-203(1)(i)

         A. Standard of Review and Law

         ¶ 6 We review a court's legal conclusions and its dismissal of charges de novo. People v. Porter, 2015 CO 34, ¶ 8. We also interpret statutes de novo. In re Estate of King, 2019 COA 82, ¶ 11. When interpreting a statute, our primary goal is to ascertain and give effect to the General Assembly's intent. Cowen v. People, 2018 CO 96, ¶ 11. To do so, we examine the plain meaning of the statutory language. Id. We give consistent effect to all its parts and construe each provision in harmony with the overall statutory design. Id.

         ¶ 7 Before 2016, the People could charge manual strangulation resulting in bodily injury as a felony only under section 18-3-203(1)(b), which provides:

(1) A person commits the crime of assault in the second degree if:
(b) With intent to cause bodily injury to another person, he or she causes such injury to any person by means ...

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