Frazier v. People

Citation90 P.3d 807
Decision Date17 May 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03SC445.,03SC445.
PartiesScott Alan FRAZIER, Petitioner v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Rehearing Denied June 7, 2004.1

Earl S. Wylder, Denver, Colorado, Attorney for Petitioner.

Ken Salazar, General Attorney, Catherine P. Adkisson, First Assistant Attorney General, Appellate Division, Criminal Justice Section, Denver, Colorado, Attorneys for Respondent.

Justice KOURLIS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

I. INTRODUCTION

In this case, we must resolve a conflict between Senate Bill 01-168,2 which was in effect from July 1, 2001, to September 25, 2001, and section 18-1.3-401, 6 C.R.S. (2002), with respect to penalties for a vehicular homicide committed on August 12, 2001. The trial court sentenced the Petitioner, Scott Allen Frazier, to six years in the Department of Corrections for that offense pursuant to C.R.S. 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A). The court of appeals affirmed. People v. Frazier, 77 P.3d 838 (Colo.App.2003).

Senate Bill 01-168, which both parties agree was in effect at the time of the crime, was an Act focused on treatment for drunk drivers. It made reference to section 18-3-106(1)(b)(I), 6 C.R.S. (2001), which is the statute that sets out the elements of vehicular homicide, and prescribed a penalty of one year in the county jail.

We conclude that the references to the felony of vehicular homicide that appear in Senate Bill 01-168 create an ambiguity both when viewed within the statute as a whole and when viewed with reference to the provisions for felony offenses contained within Title 18 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. In construing legislation, our first goal is to apply the statute as the General Assembly intended. There is no question here that the General Assembly did not intend, by Senate Bill 01-168, to reduce the sentence for felony vehicular homicide from between four and twelve years in the Department of Corrections to one year in the county jail. Therefore, we affirm the court of appeals' decision, which in turn upheld the trial court's imposition of a six-year sentence.

II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This case arises from a fatal motorcycle accident that occurred in the early morning hours of August 12, 2001. Prior to the accident, Frazier and the victim, Troy Christensen, consumed significant quantities of alcohol. Frazier then agreed to give Christensen a ride on his motorcycle. Only a few blocks from Christensen's home, Frazier lost control and struck a curb while traveling at a speed of approximately forty-five miles per hour. Both men were thrown from the motorcycle. Frazier, who was wearing a protective helmet, survived the accident but sustained serious injuries. Christensen, however, who was not wearing a helmet, died as a result of his injuries. Both Christensen and Frazier were twenty-five years old at the time of the accident.

On March 4, 2002, Frazier pled guilty to vehicular homicide pursuant to sections 18-3-106(1)(a) and (b), 6 C.R.S. (2001). Frazier signed a written Crim. P. 11 advisement form in which he indicated his understanding that the presumptive sentencing range for vehicular homicide was between four and twelve years. The trial court also verbally advised Frazier during the disposition hearing that the crime of vehicular homicide was a class three felony and that the potential sentence for class three felonies was a presumptive range of four to twelve years in the Department of Corrections. Frazier indicated to the trial court that he understood the legal consequences and potential punishment resulting from his guilty plea.

Before the sentencing hearing on June 25, 2002, Frazier filed a Motion for Sentencing. Frazier argued at that time through counsel that Senate Bill 01-168, which amended section 42-4-1301, 11 C.R.S. (2001), authorized a maximum sentence of one year in county jail for the crime of vehicular homicide. The trial court rejected Frazier's argument and sentenced him to six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections. The trial court relied in part on Senate Bill 01S2-008,3 a subsequent amendment to section 42-4-1301, to conclude that a six-year sentence was appropriate.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court's sentence in Frazier, 77 P.3d at 841. The court of appeals concluded that Senate Bill 01-168 conflicted with section 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A), the applicable sentencing statute for class three felonies.4Id. at 840. To resolve this conflict, the court of appeals examined legislative history, prior law, the goals of Colorado's sentencing scheme, and the consequences of the construction urged by Frazier in light of this conflict. Id. The court relied heavily on Senate Bill 01S2-008, which was enacted by the same General Assembly only a few months after Senate Bill 01-168. Id. The court noted that the language of Senate Bill 01S2-008 clearly indicates that Senate Bill 01-168 was never intended to modify the penalties for vehicular homicide. Id. Thus, the court perceived no error in the trial court's decision to sentence Frazier to six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.5Id. at 841.

We granted certiorari to address "whether Senate Bill 01-168, which set the maximum penalty for vehicular homicide involving alcohol at one year in county jail, was clear and unambiguous, and therefore not subject to interpretive rules of statutory construction." We now affirm the judgment of the court of appeals upholding the trial court's sentence of six years.

III. ANALYSIS

Senate Bill 01-168 is a statute designed to provide treatment alternatives for individuals convicted of offenses involving alcohol. It does not reclassify offenses. It does, however, make reference to the felony vehicular homicide statute. Frazier argues that, by that reference, the statute clearly and unambiguously sets the maximum sentence for vehicular homicide at one year in county jail. To the contrary, we conclude that the reference creates an ambiguity. Therefore, we rely on interpretive rules of statutory construction and conclude that the trial court was authorized to sentence Frazier to six years in the custody of the Department of Corrections pursuant to section 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A).

A. Background

Section 18-3-106 defines the substantive offense of vehicular homicide. It provides that "[i]f a person operates or drives a motor vehicle in a reckless manner, and such conduct is the proximate cause of the death of another, such person commits vehicular homicide." § 18-3-106(1)(a) ("reckless vehicular homicide"). In addition, section 18-3-106(1)(b)(I) ("DUI vehicular homicide") provides that "[i]f a person operates or drives a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or one or more drugs ... and such conduct is the proximate cause of the death of another, such person commits vehicular homicide. This is a strict liability offense." Accordingly, a person may commit vehicular homicide either by driving in a reckless manner or by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

In this case, Frazier pled guilty to committing both reckless and DUI vehicular homicide. However, these are not separate offenses but rather alternatives by which criminal liability for vehicular homicide may be charged and prosecuted. People v. Lucero, 985 P.2d 87, 93 (Colo.App.1999). Consequently, the trial court could only impose a sentence for one of the two alternatives. Section 18-3-106(1)(c) defines reckless vehicular homicide as a class four felony and DUI vehicular homicide as a class three felony. Because a conviction for DUI vehicular homicide mandates a harsher sentence, the trial court sentenced Frazier under that provision.

Section 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A) prescribes the sentence for felonies committed on or after July 1, 1993. The applicable sentence for a class three felony is a presumptive range of between four and twelve years. Thus, the trial court's sentence of six years was clearly within the authorized statutory range set forth in section 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A). Had section 18-1.3-401(1)(a)(V)(A) been the only statute to prescribe the penalty for vehicular homicide in effect when Frazier committed this crime, that would be the end of our inquiry.

However, during the 2001 legislative session, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 01-168, titled "concerning the requirement of the completion of level II alcohol treatment for persistent drunk drivers, and making an appropriation therefor." Section 8 of the Act amended section 42-4-1301(9)(a)(II) to add the following language:

An offender shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for not less than ninety days nor more than one year, and, in addition, the court may impose a fine of not less than five hundred dollars nor more than one thousand five hundred dollars upon a conviction of a violation of any of the following:

* * *

(B) Section 18-3-106(1)(b)(I), C.R.S.6

Senate Bill 01-168 similarly amended sections 42-4-1301(a)(IV), (b)(II), and (b)(IV). See Colo. Sess. Laws 2001, ch. 229 at 790-792. Senate Bill 01-168 became effective on July 1, 2001, and was in effect on the date Frazier committed vehicular homicide.

In September of 2001, the General Assembly held an extraordinary session. During this session, Senate Bill 01S2-008 was passed. As pertinent here, that bill stated:

SECTION 1. Legislative declaration. (1) The general assembly hereby finds, determines, and declares that:
(a) An amendment to Colorado's drunk driving laws, enacted by Senate Bill 01-168, was intended as a conforming amendment only but may inadvertently have created ambiguity in the applicable penalties for the crimes of vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, and second and subsequent convictions for driving under the influence, driving while ability impaired, and driving with excessive alcoholic content;
(b) The applicable penalties for such crimes were never intended to be, and never were, reduced as a result of any provision in
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