People v. Jennings

Decision Date19 August 2021
Docket NumberCourt of Appeals No. 18CA1934
Citation498 P.3d 1164,2021 COA 112
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Amber Leigh JENNINGS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtColorado Court of Appeals

Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Daniel Rheiner, Assistant Attorney General Fellow, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

Laura E. H. Harvell, Alternate Defense Counsel, Grand Junction, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant


¶ 1 Defendant, Amber Leigh Jennings, appeals the judgment of conviction entered on her guilty plea to possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or distribute. Among other contentions, she argues that the trial court demonstrated actual bias in the proceedings prior to her guilty plea. A guilty plea, however, generally waives appellate review of issues that arose prior to the plea. So we must decide whether a claim that the trial court was actually biased is an exception to that general rule. We conclude that it is. Still, we are not persuaded that the record shows the court was actually biased. Because we also conclude that Jennings's guilty plea precludes review of her other challenges to her conviction, we affirm.

I. Background

¶ 2 Following a traffic stop and search of her vehicle, Jennings was charged with eleven counts related to possession of illicit drugs and firearms, as well as possession of a weapon by a previous offender.

¶ 3 After Jennings fired her first retained attorney, the trial court allowed him to withdraw and accepted Jennings's newly retained attorney as a substitute. Jennings later filed a pro se motion to dismiss her second retained attorney. At first, the trial court took no action on the motion except to issue a written order explaining that Jennings could fire her second retained attorney at any time but the court would not appoint counsel or continue the trial date. The court reasoned that Jennings had "successfully avoided trials in these matters for nearly two years by discharging her previous court appointed attorney and failures to appear" and, thus, if Jennings discharged her second retained attorney, "she will either have to hire substitute counsel who can be prepared to try this case o[n] the date scheduled, or she will have to proceed as her own counsel."

¶ 4 At a hearing approximately three weeks after Jennings filed her motion to dismiss her second retained attorney, however, the trial court noted that it had mistakenly believed her first retained attorney had been appointed. The court allowed her second retained attorney to withdraw and appointed the public defender's office to represent Jennings. A public defender then entered his appearance.

¶ 5 A month later, Jennings asked for appointment of alternate defense counsel to replace the public defender due to a "conflict" with him. In a written order, the court said it was "convinced that even if another attorney were to be appointed, the same issues would occur." The court denied Jennings's motion "[a]t this point" but noted that it would address the matter at an upcoming motions hearing. At that hearing, however, counsel for the parties revealed, in Jennings's presence, that they had reached a tentative disposition and requested a short continuance. The court thus vacated the hearing without addressing the motion for alternate defense counsel.

¶ 6 At an ensuing providency hearing, Jennings pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to manufacture or distribute. Before doing so, she confirmed that no one had forced her to plead guilty, and she expressed no concerns with her attorney. The court advised her that, by pleading guilty, she would waive various rights, including the right to appeal. She said she understood, and the court accepted her guilty plea.

II. Appellate Review Following a Guilty Plea

¶ 7 Jennings raises three claims: (1) the trial court's refusal to immediately appoint the public defender after Jennings moved to dismiss her second retained attorney "constituted a denial of counsel of choice" because it forced her to keep her second retained attorney for nearly a month; (2) the court erred by denying her request for alternate defense counsel to replace the public defender without holding a hearing as per People v. Bergerud , 223 P.3d 686 (Colo. 2010) ; and (3) the court exhibited actual bias against her. We conclude that Jennings's guilty plea precludes review of the first two issues but not the third.

A. General Principles

¶ 8 A guilty plea is an admission of all the elements of a criminal charge. Neuhaus v. People , 2012 CO 65, ¶ 8, 289 P.3d 19. A "guilty plea represents a break in the chain of events which has preceded it in the criminal process," after which a defendant may not raise independent claims relating to the deprivation of constitutional rights that occurred prior to the entry of the guilty plea. Id. (quoting Tollett v. Henderson , 411 U.S. 258, 266-67, 93 S.Ct. 1602, 36 L.Ed.2d 235 (1973) ). Therefore, a defendant must plead not guilty and go to trial to preserve appellate review of challenges to pretrial proceedings. Id.

¶ 9 But, while a guilty plea generally waives appellate review of issues that arose prior to the plea, "exceptions exist to this general rule." People v. McMurtry , 122 P.3d 237, 240 (Colo. 2005). "One such exception" is a challenge to the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction, which may be raised at any time. Id. Another exception applies where double jeopardy principles preclude the prosecution from haling the defendant into court on the charge. See Patton v. People , 35 P.3d 124, 128 (Colo. 2001).

¶ 10 The question becomes, then, whether Jennings's appellate challenges fall within an exception to the rule precluding review.

B. Application to Jennings's Case
1. Right to Counsel of Choice and to Appointment of Alternate Defense Counsel

¶ 11 We turn first to Jennings's contention that the trial court violated her constitutional right to counsel of choice by not immediately appointing the public defenders’ office when she moved to dismiss her second retained attorney. This alleged error arose prior to Jennings's guilty plea, and she does not contend that it is jurisdictional. Instead, Jennings argues that this challenge was not waived by her guilty plea because, unlike the statutory speedy trial claim at issue in McMurtry , her challenge concerns an important constitutional right, the improper denial of which constitutes structural error. See McMurtry , 122 P.3d at 242 (concluding that a guilty plea precludes review of an alleged deprivation of the statutory right to speedy trial, in part because this right may be waived).

¶ 12 Jennings is correct that the erroneous deprivation of the right to counsel of choice qualifies as structural error. See United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez , 548 U.S. 140, 150, 126 S.Ct. 2557, 165 L.Ed.2d 409 (2006). Even fundamental rights can be waived, however, regardless of whether the deprivation thereof would otherwise constitute structural error. Stackhouse v. People , 2015 CO 48, ¶ 8, 386 P.3d 440.

¶ 13 "By pleading guilty, a defendant waives a number of important constitutional rights," including some that could lead to structural error if erroneously denied (e.g., the rights to trial by jury and a public trial). Patton , 35 P.3d at 128 ; cf. Sullivan v. Louisiana , 508 U.S. 275, 281-82, 113 S.Ct. 2078, 124 L.Ed.2d 182 (1993) (erroneous deprivation of the right to trial by jury constitutes structural error); Stackhouse , ¶ 7 (same as to right to public trial). In other words, a guilty plea waives fundamental Sixth Amendment rights, among others, unless the claim relates directly to the adequacy of the guilty plea (i.e., whether it was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent). People v. Stovall , 2012 COA 7M, ¶ 16, 284 P.3d 151.

¶ 14 As a result, a defendant's guilty plea precludes review of a claim that they were denied the right to counsel of choice when the claim does not relate directly to the adequacy of the plea. See People v. Isham , 923 P.2d 190, 194-95 (Colo. App. 1995) ("[T]he trial court's erroneous disqualification of counsel here does not require that defendant's guilty plea be vacated, absent evidence that the plea was involuntary or unintelligently made."); see also United States v. Montemayor , 815 F. App'x 406, 409 (11th Cir. 2020) (holding that the defendant's guilty plea waived his challenge to whether the district court properly disqualified his previous counsel). Jennings did not challenge the adequacy of her guilty plea in the trial court, nor does she do so on appeal. Thus, she waived her independent claim that the court denied her right to counsel of choice.

¶ 15 The same goes for Jennings's claim that the trial court should have appointed alternate defense counsel when an alleged conflict arose with the public defender, her third attorney. Jennings argues that, because alternate defense counsel was not appointed, she was forced to proceed with conflicted counsel. But a defendant's right to conflict-free counsel is a subset of the right to effective assistance of counsel, see People v. Curren , 228 P.3d 253, 258 (Colo. App. 2009), and a guilty plea waives review of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim unless it relates directly to the adequacy of the plea itself, see Stovall , ¶¶ 16-17 ; see also State v. Villegas , 380 Wis.2d 246, 908 N.W.2d 198, 215 n.19 (Wis. Ct. App. 2018) (collecting cases supporting this proposition). To reiterate, Jennings does not contend that her guilty plea was invalid in that it was not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily made. Therefore, by pleading guilty, she waived her stand-alone claim that the court erred by not replacing her allegedly conflicted counsel. See People v. Canales , 86 Ill.App.3d 738, 41 Ill.Dec. 877, 408 N.E.2d 299, 302 (1980) ; State v. LaRue , 619 N.W.2d 395, 397-98 (Iowa 2000).

¶ 16 Given all this, we will not resolve Jennings's claims about her counsel. See ...

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2 cases
  • People v. Sanders
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals
    • April 28, 2022
    ..."goes further" than section 16-6-201(1)(d) and Crim. P. 21(b) because it permits challenges not grounded on actual bias); People v. Jennings , 2021 COA 112, ¶¶ 18-20, 498 P.3d 1164 (distinguishing actual bias from the appearance of bias and citing section 16-6-201(1)(d) and Crim. P. 21(b) a......
  • People v. Delfeld
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    • Colorado Court of Appeals
    • October 28, 2021
    ...parties that the argument didn't need to be preserved to the extent that it raises an issue of subject matter jurisdiction, see People v. Jennings , 2021 COA 112, ¶ 9, 498 P.3d 1164 (challenges to a trial court's subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time), and challenges the suf......
1 books & journal articles
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    • United States
    • Colorado Bar Association Colorado Lawyer No. 50-9, October 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, die court did not err in denying the motion to suppress. The judgment of conviction was affirmed. 2021 COA 112. No. 18CA1934. People v. Jennings. Guilty Plea—Waiver of Appeal Right— Actual Bias. Defendant pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamin......

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