Following a landmark state Supreme Court ruling in November, the Colorado Court of Appeals has overturned three felony DUI convictions.
The orders were handed down on New Year’s Eve following a directive from the state’s highest court that all elements of a DUI charge must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.
Supreme Court ruling affects felony DUIs
In 2015, the Colorado General Assembly approved a measure where individuals can be charged with felony DUI if they have three or more prior convictions. However, a lower burden of proof was established, allowing judges to determine whether sufficient evidence existed. This often resulted in felony charges for repeat offenders leading to increased jail time and higher fines.
In November, the Colorado Supreme Court decided, in a 4-2 ruling, that the 2015 law requires a jury – not the judge – to determine that a defendant has at least three proven DUI convictions before enhancements can occur over charges and penalties. That decision resulted in several appeals for individuals convicted of felony DUI.
Based on the new standard, the Court of Appeals modified two previous decisions and issued a new finding on Dec. 31 reflecting the Supreme Court’s directive. In all three cases involving drivers with prior convictions, felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors.
The new standard could have broader implications
While the Supreme Court’s decision is likely to benefit those appealing felony DUI convictions in the short-term, it could negatively impact newly-charged DUI defendants with multiple convictions going forward. It means jurors could hear about past offenses during a trial, possibly influencing their decision on the case at hand.
The Supreme Court was not clear in its decision whether past convictions can be disclosed during a trial or only as part of the penalty phase. The high court also made no mention about whether Fifth Amendment protections apply in these cases against being tried twice for the same crime. Justices, as well as the appeals court, have effectively left those decisions up to the trial judges.