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People v. Knox

Court of Appeals of Colorado, First Division

October 10, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Ashley Rae Ruth Knox, Defendant-Appellant.

          Jefferson County District Court No. 14CR3169 Honorable Todd L. Vriesman, Judge.

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Kevin E. McReynolds, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Kamela Maktabi, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

          OPINION

          TAUBMAN, JUDGE.

         ¶ 1 Defendant, Ashley Rae Ruth Knox, appeals the judgment of conviction entered on a jury verdict finding her guilty of criminal extortion and three counts of attempt to influence a public servant.[1]Knox raises two contentions on appeal: first, the district court erred in concluding that police officers are public servants under section 18-8-306, C.R.S. 2019; and second, her threat of litigation absent settlement of a potential personal injury claim did not constitute criminal extortion under section 18-3-207(1)(a), (b)(I), C.R.S. 2019. Because we disagree with her first contention, we affirm her convictions for attempt to influence a public servant. However, because we agree with her second contention, we vacate her conviction for criminal extortion.

         I. Background

         ¶ 2 On November 26, 2014, Amber Diedrichs-Giffin was turning left in her car when she heard a "bang" as Knox forcefully placed her hands on the hood of the car. When Diedrichs-Giffin asked if Knox was okay, Knox responded that her "leg kind of hurts." Diedrichs-Giffin provided her insurance and contact information; however, Knox declined to contact law enforcement officials and asked for "weed" or money, stating, "We could settle this now." Knox walked away - seemingly uninjured - after Diedrichs-Giffin directed Knox to contact Diedrichs-Giffin's insurance company.

         ¶ 3 Shortly afterward, Diedrichs-Giffin called 911 to report the accident, expressing her uncertainty about who was at fault. The dispatcher told her that, without an injury, she did not need to file a report; but if Knox contacted law enforcement officials later, they could refer to the recording of Diedrichs-Giffin's call.

         ¶ 4 Later the same day, Knox sent Diedrichs-Giffin a series of text messages asking to settle matters outside of court. The particular text message underlying the eventual criminal extortion charge and conviction stated:

Hey amber, this is Ashley the young lady, u hit..i have a little amount of time if i want to pursue, court action…im already on pain management and am going through hard times like everyone..im sure..id rather u help me out we agree to a one time feesable amount. We can even sign something if u want..to keep out of a long court proceeding going back to court over several months, insurance goin up, and my medical bills, since im in and out of hospital already[.] Let me know, if that works for you, or u would rather draw it out in court. Thanks[.]

         Diedrichs-Giffin did not respond to the message and testified that she perceived it as an attempt to "make a one-time deal with me so that way we didn't have to pursue it in court."

         ¶ 5 Six days later, Knox walked to an area near where the incident occurred and called 911, reporting that she had just been injured in a hit-and-run accident. Among other things, she claimed that the driver had refused to wait for police and she could not walk home because her leg and hip hurt.

         ¶ 6 Arvada police officers Dustin LeDoux and Donald Smith responded to Knox's report. Knox described Diedrichs-Giffin and her vehicle to Officer Smith and provided him with her license plate number. During the subsequent ambulance ride to the hospital, she provided a more detailed account to Officer LeDoux.

         ¶ 7 Officer LeDoux tracked down Diedrichs-Giffin and learned that the incident had, in fact, taken place six days earlier. He also procured a copy of the text Knox had sent to Diedrichs-Giffin the day of the incident. Officer LeDoux interviewed Knox at the hospital after hearing Diedrichs-Giffin's account. She initially maintained her version of events, but when confronted with the text message, she admitted that the incident had occurred six days earlier. She explained that she had lied about the timing because she feared not receiving medical treatment otherwise.

         ¶ 8 The district attorney charged Knox with criminal extortion, false reporting, and three counts of attempt to influence a public servant. The jury rejected her arguments that she was guilty only of false reporting and that the prosecution had failed to prove that she staged the accident or faked her injuries. She was convicted of all counts, and this appeal followed.

         II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         ¶ 9 Knox contends that the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she committed three offenses of attempt to influence a public servant; thus, she argues that we must vacate her convictions because the evidence was insufficient to establish her guilt. Before determining whether there was sufficient evidence to convict Knox of attempting to influence a public servant, we must address two preliminary questions - (1) whether police officers are public servants and (2) whether Knox could be convicted of three offenses or only one offense.

         A. Attempt to Influence Public Servants

         ¶ 10 Knox argues that the district court erred in concluding that police officers are public servants for purposes of attempting to influence a public servant under section 18-8-306. We disagree.

         1. Standard of Review

         ¶ 11 Sufficiency of the evidence claims may be raised for the first time on appeal and are not subject to plain error review. McCoy v. People, 2019 COA 44, ¶ 19, 442 P.3d 379, 385.

         ¶ 12 We review questions of statutory interpretation de novo. People v. Sena, 2016 COA 161, ¶ 10, 395 P.3d 1148, 1150.

         ¶ 13 When interpreting a statute, we look first to the language of the statute, attributing plain and ordinary meanings to all words and phrases. McCoy, ¶ 37, 442 P.3d at 389. We read the statute in context with its broader statutory scheme, "giving consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of its parts, and we must avoid constructions that would render any words or phrases superfluous or lead to illogical or absurd results." Id. at ¶ 38, 442 P.3d at 389. If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, we apply the provision as written. Id. If, on the other hand, we conclude that the statute is reasonably susceptible of multiple interpretations, we turn to other interpretive methods to ascertain the legislature's intent and resolve the ambiguity. Id. In so doing, we may refer to canons of statutory construction, legislative history, and the statute's purpose. Id.

         2. Applicable Law and Analysis

         ¶ 14 In Sena, a division of our court concluded that, by its plain language, "police officers are public servants as contemplated in section 18-8-306." Sena, ¶ 15, 395 P.3d at 1151. Knox contends Sena was wrongly decided. We agree with the holding in Sena. However, although we agree with the Sena division's conclusion that a police officer is a public servant, we reach that conclusion after determining that the statute is ambiguous, requiring additional interpretation.

         ¶ 15 On the one hand, the reading of the statute and the accompanying statutory scheme relied on by Knox suggests that the legislature intended to distinguish police officers from public servants by enacting separate statutes to address conduct against them in certain circumstances. On the other hand, the Sena division concluded, based on the plain language of the statute, that police officers are included in the broad definition of public servants. Because section 18-8-306 is amenable to two reasonable interpretations, we conclude it is ambiguous.

         ¶ 16 The statute governing the crime of attempt to influence a public servant provides:

Any person who attempts to influence any public servant by means of deceit or by threat of violence or economic reprisal against any person or property, with the intent thereby to alter or affect the public servant's decision, vote, opinion, or action concerning any matter which is to be considered or performed ...

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