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People v. Quezada-Caro

Court of Appeals of Colorado, Second Division

October 17, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Dolores Quezada-Caro, Defendant-Appellant.

          Arapahoe County District Court No. 15CR3137 Honorable Phillip L. Douglass, Judge

          Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Elizabeth Ford Milani, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

          Megan A. Ring, Colorado State Public Defender, Brian Cox, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

          OPINION

          BROWN JUDGE

         ¶ 1 Defendant, Dolores Quezada-Caro, appeals his judgment of conviction for felony driving under the influence (DUI). Among other things, he contends he was entitled to have a jury determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether he had prior convictions for impaired-driving offenses. If section 42-4-1301(1)(a), C.R.S. 2019, is interpreted otherwise, he argues, it violates his right to equal protection because it proscribes the same conduct as section 42-4-1307(6), C.R.S. 2019, but carries harsher penalties.

         ¶ 2 Consistent with other divisions of this court, we conclude that the felony DUI statute does not require prior convictions to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. And we reject Quezada-Caro's contention that section 42-4-1301(1)(a) violates his right to equal protection. Because Quezada-Caro's remaining contentions also fail, we affirm.

         I. Background

         ¶ 3 An officer with the Glendale Police Department was on patrol at around 2:35 a.m. when he noticed a pickup truck parked in a lane of traffic with its engine running and the lights on. When the officer approached the truck, he found Quezada-Caro asleep in the driver's seat with vomit on his shirt and drool leaking from his mouth. After several attempts, the officer was able to wake and speak with Quezada-Caro.

         ¶ 4 The officer testified that, during the encounter, Quezada-Caro's eyes were bloodshot and watery, he had difficulty standing and walking, and he smelled strongly of alcohol. Quezada-Caro told the officer that he had been at a bar about 1.6 miles away and had consumed three or four beers. Later, during the same conversation, he admitted he actually had eight or more drinks that evening. The officer arrested him.

         ¶ 5 At the police station, Quezada-Caro consented to a blood draw, which showed his blood alcohol level was 0.207. Quezada-Caro told the officer approximately fifty times that he did not care if he had been driving drunk and that it was "no big deal." The prosecution charged Quezada-Caro with, as pertinent here, felony DUI and DUI per se.

         ¶ 6 Prior to trial, Quezada-Caro moved for a ruling that prior impaired-driving convictions are an element of a felony DUI charge that must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court disagreed, concluding that prior convictions are a sentence enhancer, which it would determine after trial.

         ¶ 7 A jury convicted Quezada-Caro of both counts. At a separate hearing, the district court found, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Quezada-Caro had three prior Colorado DUI convictions and at least two prior California DUI convictions. The district court sentenced Quezada-Caro to six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections, suspended upon the successful completion of fifteen years of probation. Quezada-Caro now appeals his felony DUI conviction.

         II. Analysis

         ¶ 8 Quezada-Caro contends that (1) he was entitled to have a jury determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether he had prior convictions for impaired-driving offenses and (2) the district court erred by failing to modify his tendered definitional instruction into a theory of the case instruction. We disagree.

         A. Prior DUI Convictions

         ¶ 9 Quezada-Caro contends the district court erred by treating his prior impaired-driving convictions as a sentence enhancer rather than as an element of the offense that had to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, Quezada-Caro argues that (1) the legislature intended proof of prior impaired-driving convictions to be a substantive element of a felony DUI offense; (2) we should not apply the prior conviction exception to the general rule that any fact increasing a penalty beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) treating prior convictions as a sentence enhancer rather than an element of the offense violates his right to equal protection. We reject each contention.

         1. Prior Convictions Are a Sentence Enhancer for a DUI Offense

         ¶ 10 Whether a statutory provision is a sentence enhancer or a substantive element of an offense is a question of law that we review de novo. Lopez v. People, 113 P.3d 713, 720 (Colo. 2005); People v. Gwinn, 2018 COA 130, ¶ 20. We interpret the plain language of a statute to give full effect to the intent of the General Assembly. People v. Griego, 2018 CO 5, ¶ 25. When the statutory language is clear, we apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the provision. Id. In doing so, we give consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to each part of the statute, and we render no words or phrases superfluous. Id.

         ¶ 11 "A statutory provision is a sentence enhancer when the defendant may be convicted of the underlying offense without any proof of the prior conviction." Gwinn, ¶ 44; see People v. Schreiber, 226 P.3d 1221, 1223 (Colo.App. 2009); People v. Whitley, 998 P.2d 31, 33 (Colo.App. 1999). In contrast, elements of a crime are the "the legal components that are necessary to establish criminal liability." People v. Hopkins, 2013 COA 74, ¶ 8. Thus, a fact is a sentence enhancer rather than a substantive element of an offense if (1) a defendant may be convicted of the underlying offense without any proof of the fact and (2) the fact merely increases the defendant's potential punishment. People v. Becker, 2014 COA 36, ¶ 11.

         ¶ 12 The felony DUI statute, section 42-4-1301(1)(a), provides that "[a] person who drives a motor vehicle . . . under the influence of alcohol . . . commits driving under the influence." These are the only elements that must be proved to convict a defendant of DUI. See Gwinn, ¶ 49.

         ¶ 13 The statute continues:

Driving under the influence is a misdemeanor, but it is a class 4 felony if the violation occurred after three or more prior convictions, arising out of separate and distinct criminal episodes, for DUI, DUI per se, or [driving while ability impaired (DWAI)]; vehicular homicide . . .; vehicular assault . . .; or any combination thereof.

§ 42-4-1301(1)(a). Thus, as the division in Gwinn explained, a defendant may be convicted of DUI without any proof of prior convictions, and proof of prior convictions only increases the potential punishment. See Gwinn, ΒΆΒΆ 44-49. Accordingly, the statute unambiguously demonstrates that "the General Assembly intended prior DUI convictions to constitute a sentence enhancer rather than an ...


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