People v. Lee

Citation476 P.3d 351
Decision Date23 November 2020
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 19SC749
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner v. Dearies Deshonne Austin LEE, Respondent
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Attorneys for Petitioner: George H. Brauchler, District Attorney, Eighteenth Judicial District Jacob Edson, Chief Deputy District Attorney Centennial, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondent: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Jessica Sommer, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

en banc


JUSTICE GABRIEL delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 This case requires us to determine whether, under prevailing Colorado equal protection principles, a defendant may be charged with second degree assault based on conduct involving strangulation under both the deadly weapon subsection of the second degree assault statute, section 18-3-203(1)(b), C.R.S. (2020), and the strangulation subsection of that same statute, section 18-3-203(1)(i).

¶2 The People initially charged Dearies Deshonne Austin Lee with, among other things, two counts of second degree assault-strangulation pursuant to subsection 18-3-203(1)(i), following an incident in which he was alleged to have twice strangled his former girlfriend. Eight months later, the People added two counts of second degree assault-bodily injury with a deadly weapon, namely, hands, pursuant to subsection 18-3-203(1)(b), based on the same conduct. On Lee's motion, the trial court dismissed the two charges of second degree assault-bodily injury with a deadly weapon on equal protection grounds. The People appealed, and in a unanimous, published opinion, a division of the court of appeals affirmed this dismissal order. People v. Lee , 2019 COA 130, ¶¶ 20, 28, 477 P.3d 732. We granted certiorari to consider the equal protection question.1

¶3 We now conclude that under prevailing Colorado equal protection principles, a defendant may not be charged with second degree assault based on conduct involving strangulation under both the deadly weapon subsection of the second degree assault statute, section 18-3-203(1)(b), and the strangulation subsection of that statute, section 18-3-203(1)(i). Rather, the defendant must be charged under the strangulation subsection. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the division below.

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶4 Lee had been together with the alleged victim, T.M., for about two years, and the two had a child but were separated at the time of the incident in question. According to T.M., Lee came to her apartment to pick up their child and demanded that T.M. gather the child's belongings. Lee allegedly became frustrated that T.M. was not moving fast enough, and he became violent, ultimately grabbing T.M. by the neck and pushing her onto her bed. According to T.M., Lee continued to apply pressure to her neck until she lost consciousness.

¶5 T.M. subsequently regained consciousness and went into the living room to get her daughter. There, Lee allegedly confronted her again and, according to T.M., pushed her onto the couch and again began to strangle her, causing her to lose consciousness a second time.

¶6 Based on these allegations, the People charged Lee with, among other things, two counts of second degree assault under the strangulation subsection of the applicable statute, 18-3-203(1)(i). Eight months later, however, the People moved to add two additional counts of second degree assault under the deadly weapon subsection, 18-3-203(1)(b), asserting that Lee had used his hands as a deadly weapon. The trial court granted this motion.

¶7 Thereafter, Lee moved to dismiss the added counts, arguing, among other things, that those counts, as charged, violated his right to equal protection under the Colorado Constitution. The trial court held a hearing on Lee's motion and ultimately granted that motion, dismissing the added counts on equal protection grounds.

¶8 The People immediately appealed the trial court's dismissal order to the court of appeals, arguing that the trial court had erred in its application of prior court of appeals case law. The division, however, unanimously affirmed. Lee , ¶¶ 20, 28. As pertinent here, the division reasoned that (1) "charging the same conduct under both subsections would violate a defendant's right to equal protection because the subsections carry different maximum penalties" and (2) the applicable legislative history showed that when the General Assembly amended the second degree assault statute to add the strangulation subsection, it intended that all strangulation conduct would be charged under the strangulation subsection rather than the deadly weapon subsection. Id. at ¶ 2.

¶9 The People then petitioned this court for certiorari review, and we granted their petition.

II. Analysis

¶10 We begin by discussing the applicable standard of review and standards of statutory construction. We then discuss the equal protection principles implicated in this case, and we proceed to apply those principles to the facts before us.

A. Standard of Review and Principles of Statutory Construction

¶11 We review a trial court's decision to dismiss charges de novo. People v. Porter , 2015 CO 34, ¶¶ 6–8, 348 P.3d 922, 923–24. We similarly review questions of law involving statutory construction de novo. People v. Griego , 2018 CO 5, ¶ 25, 409 P.3d 338, 342. "In construing a statute, we interpret the plain language of the statute to give full effect to the intent of the General Assembly." Id. When the statutory language is unambiguous, we apply the plain and ordinary meaning of the provision. Id. "In doing so, we give consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to each part of the statute, and we interpret every word, rendering no words or phrases superfluous and construing undefined words and phrases according to their common usage." Id. In addition, we eschew statutory constructions that lead to absurd or illogical results. Frazier v. People , 90 P.3d 807, 811 (Colo. 2004). And whenever possible, we construe statutes in such a way as to avoid calling their constitutional validity into question. Adams Cnty. Sch. Dist. No. 50 v. Heimer , 919 P.2d 786, 790 (Colo. 1996).

B. Equal Protection

¶12 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[, Colo. Const. art. II, § 25,] to imply a similar guarantee." Dean v. People , 2016 CO 14, ¶ 11, 366 P.3d 593, 596. "Equal protection of the laws assures the like treatment of all persons who are similarly situated." Id.

¶13 In the criminal law context, the United States Supreme Court has concluded that "where a defendant's conduct violates more than one criminal statute, the government's choice to prosecute under the statute with the harsher penalty does not violate federal equal protection, absent evidence of selective enforcement based on a prohibited standard such as race, religion, or other arbitrary classification." Id. at ¶ 14, 366 P.3d at 597 ; accord United States v. Batchelder , 442 U.S. 114, 124–25, n.9, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979). This court, however, has yet to adopt the federal equal protection standard, the People did not ask us to do so in this case, and thus whether we should adopt the federal standard is not now before us. To the contrary, the parties appear to agree on the applicable principles of Colorado law, and we therefore turn to those principles.

¶14 We have long held, in contrast with the above-noted federal precedent, that "Colorado's guarantee of equal protection is violated where two criminal statutes proscribe identical conduct, yet one punishes that conduct more harshly." Dean , ¶ 14, 366 P.3d at 597 ; see also People v. Marcy , 628 P.2d 69, 74–75 (Colo. 1981) (noting that "equal protection of the laws is violated if different statutes proscribe the same criminal conduct with disparate criminal sanctions."). Along the same lines, we have said that "separate statutes proscribing with different penalties what ostensibly might be different acts, but offering no intelligent standard for distinguishing the proscribed conduct, run afoul of equal protection under state constitutional doctrine." Marcy , 628 P.2d at 75. Accordingly, we have opined that to overcome an equal protection challenge, "a person of average intelligence" must be able to distinguish the conduct proscribed by one offense from the conduct proscribed by another. Griego , ¶ 36, 409 P.3d at 344 (quoting Marcy , 628 P.2d at 80–81 ). Moreover, the distinction between the two offenses must be "sufficiently pragmatic" to "permit an intelligent and uniform application of the law." Marcy , 628 P.2d at 78.

¶15 Applying these principles in Marcy , 628 P.2d at 80, where we addressed a facial challenge to a statute, as opposed to the as-applied challenge now before us, we concluded that the statutory prohibition against extreme indifference murder, as it was then defined, violated a defendant's equal protection rights under the Colorado Constitution because that prohibition could not reasonably be distinguished from the lesser offense of second degree murder. Second degree murder requires proof that the defendant knowingly caused the death of a person. § 18-3-103(1), C.R.S. (2020). Extreme indifference murder, as defined at the time Marcy was decided, required proof that "[u]nder circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, [the defendant] knowingly engage[d] in conduct which create[d] a grave risk of death to a person other than himself, and thereby cause[d] the death of another." § 18-3-102(1)(d), C.R.S. (1973) (1978 Repl. Vol. 8). We noted that both provisions mandated "that the death-causing act be done ‘knowingly’ " and that, although the extreme...

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