Dean v. People

Decision Date29 February 2016
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 12SC585
Citation366 P.3d 593
Parties Charles DEAN, Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Attorney for Petitioner: Alison Ruttenberg, Alternate Defense Counsel, Boulder, Colorado.

Attorneys for Respondent: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General, Ryan A. Crane, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado.

En Banc

JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 A jury convicted Charles E. Dean of second degree murder, a class 2 felony that carries a maximum presumptive range sentence of twenty-four years. The trial court adjudicated him an habitual criminal based on five previous felony convictions and sentenced him under subsection (2) of the habitual criminal statute, § 18–1.3–801(2), C.R.S. (2015). That provision required the trial court to sentence Dean to four times the maximum presumptive sentence for second degree murder, or ninety-six years. Id. Under the corresponding parole eligibility provision governing his conviction, Dean must serve seventy-five percent of his sentence, or seventy-two years, before he is eligible for parole. § 17–22.5–403(2.5)(a), C.R.S. (2015).

¶ 2 Dean contends that the interplay of the habitual criminal statute (section 18–1.3–801 ) and the parole eligibility statute (section 17–22.5–403 ), as applied in his case, violates his right to equal protection because he must serve a longer period of incarceration before he is eligible for parole than an habitual offender with a history of more serious felony convictions. Specifically, had his prior criminal history included two or more convictions for violent or more serious felonies, he would have been sentenced instead to life imprisonment under subsection (1) of the habitual criminal statute, but he would have been parole eligible after only forty calendar years. See §§ 18–1.3–801(1)(a), (c) ; see also 17–22.5–104(2)(d)(III), C.R.S. (2015). Dean argues that his lengthier parole eligibility period violates equal protection because it punishes him more harshly for his less serious prior offenses. The court of appeals rejected Dean's as-applied equal protection challenge and affirmed his sentence. People v. Dean, 2012 COA 106, ¶¶ 30–32, 292 P.3d 1066, 1073.

¶ 3 We granted Dean's petition for a writ of certiorari1 and now affirm the court of appeals. We hold that the sentencing and parole eligibility scheme for habitual criminal offenders does not violate Dean's constitutional right to equal protection.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶ 4 In October 2004, Dean severely beat his friend, Timothy Ware, and left him in a closet to die. Dean later dismembered Ware's body with a chainsaw in the bathtub. He placed the body parts into trash bags and deposited them in various dumpsters around Denver, then set fire to Ware's apartment in an attempt to hide the remaining evidence. Dean was charged with first degree murder and several habitual criminal counts. A jury convicted him of the lesser included offense of second degree murder, a class 2 felony.

¶ 5 The trial court adjudicated Dean an habitual criminal based on five prior felony convictions: first degree burglary (class 3 felony); attempted theft (class 5 felony); attempted first degree trespass (class 6 felony); second degree assault (class 6 felony); and second degree burglary (class 4 felony). The trial court sentenced Dean under subsection (2) of the habitual criminal statute, which governs habitual offenders who have three or more prior felony convictions that do not qualify for a sentence to life imprisonment under subsection (1). § 18–1.3–801(2) ; see also id. § –801(4) (requiring persons who meet the criteria for subsection (1) to be sentenced to life imprisonment under that subsection). Subsection (2) of the habitual criminal statute required the trial court to sentence Dean to four times the maximum presumptive range sentence for the class 2 felony triggering offense of second degree murder, or ninety-six years. § 18–1.3–801(2)(a)(I)(A) ; see also § 18–1.3–401(1)(a)(V)(A) (providing a presumptive sentencing range of eight to twenty-four years for class 2 felonies). Under the parole eligibility statute, an offender such as Dean is eligible for parole after serving seventy-five percent of his sentence—in Dean's case, seventy-two years. § 17–22.5–403(2.5)(a). By contrast, subsection (1) of the habitual criminal statute requires a life sentence for an individual who is convicted of a class 1 or 2 felony or level 1 drug felony, or a class 3 felony that is a crime of violence, and who has been twice convicted previously for any of these offenses. § 18–1.3–801(1)(a). A subsection (1) offender who is sentenced to life imprisonment is eligible for parole after serving at least forty calendar years. § 18–1.3–801(1)(c).

¶ 6 Dean argued below that his habitual criminal sentence and corresponding parole eligibility deny him equal protection of the laws because, despite his less serious, nonviolent criminal history, Dean must serve a longer period of incarceration before becoming eligible for parole than an habitual criminal sentenced to life imprisonment for a history of serious or violent felonies.

¶ 7 The trial court rejected Dean's equal protection challenge, and the court of appeals affirmed Dean's conviction and sentence. Dean, ¶ 56, 292 P.3d at 1077. The court of appeals concluded that the habitual criminal and parole eligibility statutes, as applied to Dean, did not violate equal protection. Id. at ¶¶ 10, 30, 292 P.3d at 1069, 1073. It reasoned that the legislature rationally distinguished habitual criminals who had committed more serious felonies from those who had committed lesser felonies, and assigned correspondingly severe sentences under the habitual criminal statute. Id. at ¶ 31, 292 P.3d at 1073. It further reasoned that, for defendants sentenced to life imprisonment, the legislature rationally set parole eligibility at forty years because it is not possible to establish parole eligibility as a percentage of a life sentence given that the duration of a life sentence depends on how long an inmate lives. Id. at ¶ 32, 292 P.3d at 1073. We granted Dean's petition for a writ of certiorari to review the court of appeals' determination that Dean's sentence does not violate equal protection.

II. Standard of Review

¶ 8 The constitutionality of a statute is a question of law subject to de novo review. Coffman v. Williamson , 2015 CO 35, ¶ 13, 348 P.3d 929, 934 ; see also People v. Lovato , 2014 COA 113, ¶ 12, 357 P.3d 212, 219 ("We review the constitutionality of a statute, both facially and as applied, de novo."). A statute is presumed to be constitutional; the challenging party bears the burden of proving its unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt. Hinojos–Mendoza v. People , 169 P.3d 662, 668 (Colo.2007) ; People v. Black , 915 P.2d 1257, 1261 (Colo.1996).

III. Analysis

¶ 9 Dean contends that the habitual criminal sentencing and parole eligibility scheme violates his right to equal protection of the laws because, as applied in his case, a nonviolent habitual offender such as Dean must serve a lengthier period of incarceration before becoming eligible for parole than an habitual offender with a history of more serious or violent felony convictions. We disagree.

¶ 10 We hold that Dean's contention fails to establish a violation of his right to equal protection. The habitual criminal sentencing and parole eligibility scheme is rationally related to the legislative purposes of public safety and punishment of recidivist offenders; moreover, for purposes of an equal protection claim, this court compares the relative severity of sentences by reference to the maximum possible period of incarceration, not the timing of parole eligibility.

A. Equal Protection

¶ 11 The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. Although the Colorado Constitution contains no equal protection clause, we have construed the due process clause of the Colorado Constitution to imply a similar guarantee. See Colo. Const. art. II, § 25 ; People v. Stewart, 55 P.3d 107, 114 (Colo.2002) ; People v. Estrada, 198 Colo. 188, 601 P.2d 619, 620 (1979). Equal protection of the laws assures the like treatment of all persons who are similarly situated. City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Ctr., Inc., 473 U.S. 432, 439, 105 S.Ct. 3249, 87 L.Ed.2d 313 (1985) ; People v. Cagle, 751 P.2d 614, 619 (Colo.1988) ; People v. Mozee, 723 P.2d 117, 126 (Colo.1986).

¶ 12 Where a party raises an equal protection challenge, the level of judicial scrutiny varies with the type of classification used and the nature of the right affected. People v. Diaz, 2015 CO 28, ¶ 25, 347 P.3d 621, 626–27. We apply rational basis review where, as here, the challenged law does not impact a traditionally suspect class or implicate a fundamental right. Id. ; People v. Alexander, 797 P.2d 1250, 1255 (Colo.1990). Under rational basis review, the challenging party must prove that the statute's classification bears no rational relationship to a legitimate legislative purpose or government objective, or that the classification is otherwise unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious. Diaz, ¶ 25, 347 P.3d at 626–27.

¶ 13 In applying rational basis review to an equal protection challenge to a statutory classification, we do not decide whether the legislature has chosen the best route to accomplish its objectives. See HealthONE v. Rodriguez ex rel. Rodriguez, 50 P.3d 879, 894 (Colo.2002) ( "That we might believe the decision [the legislature] reached was not the best policy, or that we might have reached a different decision, does not entitle us to overrule the legislature's decision absent a firm conviction that the decision is irrational."); People v. Turman, 659 P.2d 1368, 1374 (Colo.1983). Moreover, "[s]imply because a statutory classification creates a harsh...

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