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Williams v. People

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

December 9, 2019

Ruth Cheryl Williams, Petitioner:
v.
The People of the State of Colorado, Respondent:

          Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 14CA1959.

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Kamela Maktabi, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado.

          Attorneys for Respondent: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General Megan C. Rasband, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado.

          OPINION

          HOOD JUSTICE.

         ¶1 Ruth Cheryl Williams allegedly stole $10, 000 from her employer. She pled guilty to felony theft in exchange for a four-year deferred judgment and sentence. The district court placed her on probation for the deferral period and required that she pay $10, 000 in restitution. Roughly three years into her deferred sentence, Williams had only paid about $500.

         ¶2 Based on that failure to pay, the district attorney moved to impose judgment and sentence. The district court concluded that Williams had violated the restitution order, so it revoked the deferred judgment and entered a conviction for felony theft.

         ¶3 Williams appealed, contending that the prosecution failed to meet its burden to prove that she had the financial ability to pay restitution. Applying this court's precedent, a division of the court of appeals concluded that the prosecution had no such burden. Instead, if Williams wanted to avoid becoming a convicted felon, she had to prove that she couldn't pay.

         ¶4 We reverse and hold that when a defendant introduces some evidence of her inability to pay restitution, a district court must make the ability-to-pay findings under section 18-1.3-702(3)(c), C.R.S. (2019), before revoking a deferred judgment for failure to pay. We further hold that the prosecution bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that (1) "the defendant has the ability to comply with the court's order to pay a monetary amount due without undue hardship to the defendant or the defendant's dependents," and (2) "the defendant has not made a good-faith effort to comply with the order." § 18-1.3-702(3)(c).

         ¶5 Because Williams introduced some evidence of her inability to pay restitution, we remand for a new deferred judgment revocation hearing under this framework.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶6 After Williams allegedly stole $10, 000 from her employer, the state charged her with felony theft under section 18-4-401, C.R.S. (2019), and later added misdemeanor criminal possession of a financial device under section 18-5-903, C.R.S. (2019). As part of a plea agreement, she pled guilty to both charges. As to the felony theft count, the court placed her on a four-year deferred judgment and sentence to be supervised by the probation department. As to the misdemeanor count, the court imposed judgment and sentenced her to two years of probation, to be served concurrently with the deferred judgment. The agreement required Williams to pay $10, 000 in restitution to her employer, and the probation department established a monthly payment schedule.

         ¶7 Two years later, the probation department filed a complaint alleging that Williams had not made a single restitution payment. It recommended that the district court enter judgment on the theft count. Williams denied these allegations. Following a hearing, the court held the complaint in abeyance and granted Williams additional time to comply.

         ¶8 Williams subsequently missed several restitution payments. Because she had paid no more than $534 total toward restitution, the probation department again recommended that the court revoke the deferred judgment. It also alleged that Williams missed several scheduled appointments with her probation officer, did not search for employment in compliance with the department's instructions, and had not completed a community service requirement. The district attorney filed a motion to the same effect.

         ¶9 At the revocation hearing, Williams's probation officer testified that Williams had indeed missed multiple payments but acknowledged that Williams: (1) was searching for a job; (2) had an overdue home energy bill of about $3, 000 and also owed about $8, 000 to a credit union; and (3) had purportedly been trying to sell her personal belongings to pay restitution.

         ¶10 Defense counsel argued that "there [had] not been any showing by the District Attorney that Ms. Williams did, in fact, have the ability to pay."

         ¶11 Citing this court's decision in People v. Afentul, 773 P.2d 1081, 1085 (Colo. 1989) (holding that after the prosecution presents evidence of a defendant's failure to pay restitution, the burden then shifts to the defendant to prove that she was financially unable to pay restitution), the district court disagreed that the prosecution had the burden to prove ability to pay. Because Williams "never took any action to indicate that . . . she was unable to pay," was not disabled, and had a car, the court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Williams had the ability to pay. The court concluded that Williams had failed to comply with the restitution order, revoked the deferred judgment and sentence, and entered a judgment of conviction for felony theft.[1]

         ¶12 After a hearing, the court sentenced Williams to four years of probation. It also imposed, but suspended, a ninety-day jail sentence on the condition that Williams participate in a workforce program and receive a mental health evaluation within the next six months. The court had previously informed Williams that unless she found work, she would be "sentenced to Community Corrections or prison [i]n this case."

         ¶13 Williams appealed, challenging the theft conviction. She contended that the prosecution had the burden to prove she had the financial ability to pay restitution and that insufficient evidence supported the district court's finding that she had the ability to pay.

         ¶14 A division of the court of appeals disagreed with Williams. Relying on our decision in Afentul, the division unanimously held that the record supported the district court's finding that Williams had the ability to pay. People v. Williams, No. 14CA1959, ¶ 11 (Nov. 10, 2016). It reasoned that "Williams simply failed to present evidence providing a complete picture of her financial circumstances," and the district court judge "could have only guessed" whether Williams had any other sources of income, assets, or financial obligations. Id. at ¶ 13.

         ¶15 The division also rejected Williams's argument that the prosecution had the burden to prove she had the ability to pay. Id. at ¶ 14. Again relying on Afentul, the division reasoned that the burden shifted to Williams to prove she was unable to make the restitution payments. Id.

         ¶16 Williams then petitioned this court for certiorari. We agreed to review her case.[2]

         II. Analysis

         ¶17 After identifying the standard of review, we discuss the statutes governing deferred judgment revocation proceedings, § 18-1.3-102, C.R.S. (2019), probation revocation hearings, § 16-11-206, C.R.S. (2019), and due process protections for defendants ordered to pay restitution, § 18-1.3-702. We then address whether the prosecution must prove that a defendant is financially able to pay restitution before a court may revoke a deferred judgment for failure to pay restitution. In answering this question, we look to sections 18-1.3-102(2), 16-11-206(3), and 18-1.3-702(3)(c). Harmonizing these provisions, we conclude that when a defendant introduces some evidence of her inability to pay restitution, a district court must make the ability-to-pay findings under section 18-1.3-702(3)(c) before revoking a deferred judgment ...


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