People v. Rojas

Decision Date15 October 2019
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 18SC225
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner v. Brooke E. ROJAS, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Attorneys for Petitioner: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Kevin E. McReynolds, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondent: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender, Rachel K. Mercer, Deputy Public Defender, Denver, Colorado

En Banc

JUSTICE HOOD delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Brooke E. Rojas received food stamp benefits to which she was not legally entitled. The prosecution charged her with two counts of theft under the general theft statute, section 18-4-401(1)(a), C.R.S. (2019). Rojas moved to dismiss these charges, arguing that she could only be prosecuted under section 26-2-305(1)(a), C.R.S. (2019), because it created the specific crime of theft of food stamps. The trial court denied the motion, and a jury convicted Rojas of the two general theft counts.

¶2 Rojas contends that the trial court erred by denying the motion to dismiss because section 26-2-305(1)(a) abrogated the general theft statute in food stamp benefit cases. A split division of the court of appeals agreed with her.

¶3 We disagree with Rojas and the division majority. Based on the statute’s plain language, we hold that the legislature didn’t create a crime separate from general theft by enacting section 26-2-305(1)(a).

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶4 The relevant facts unfolded over the course of a year. In August 2012, Rojas applied for food stamp benefits from the Larimer County Department of Human Services ("the Department") because she had no income. She received a recertification letter in December, which she submitted in mid-January, stating that she still had no income. And technically that was true. Rojas had started a new job on January 1, but she hadn’t yet received a paycheck when she submitted her recertification letter. Consequently, Rojas and her family received $1,052 per month in food stamp benefits even though they were ineligible.

¶5 Fast forward to August 2013 when Rojas reapplied for food stamp benefits. Although she was still working, she reported that she had no income. When the Department checked Rojas’s employment status, it learned that she was not only employed, but making some $55,000 a year (to help support a family of seven). After some more digging, the Department determined that Rojas had received $5,632 in benefits to which she was not legally entitled.

¶6 The prosecution charged Rojas with two counts of theft (for two time periods) under section 18-4-401(1)(a), the general theft statute. Rojas moved to dismiss the charges, asserting that she could only be prosecuted under section 26-2-305(1)(a) because it created the specific crime of theft of food stamps. The court denied the motion, and a jury found Rojas guilty of the two general theft charges. (Rojas had requested that the jury also be instructed on the lesser non-included offense of fraud in connection with obtaining food stamps. The jury convicted her of that, too.)

¶7 Rojas appealed. Applying the factors from People v. Bagby , 734 P.2d 1059, 1062 (Colo. 1987), a split division of the court of appeals concluded that "the General Assembly intended section 26-2-305 to supplant the general theft statute." See People v. Rojas , 2018 COA 20, ¶ 38, ––– P.3d ––––. It then held that "the prosecution was barred from prosecuting Rojas under the general theft statute" and vacated her theft convictions. Id.

¶8 Judge Richman dissented. He concluded that section 26-2-305(1)(a) didn’t create a separate crime for theft of food stamps. He noted that "[n]either the title nor the text of the statute names a separate crime." Rojas , ¶ 46 (Richman, J., dissenting). He cited the statute’s legislative history for further support of this interpretation. Id. at ¶¶ 47–48. Finally, he engaged in a Bagby analysis, concluding that the first factor—invocation of the full extent of the state’s police powers—had not been met. Id. at ¶¶ 51–53.

¶9 We granted the People’s petition for certiorari review.1

II. Analysis

¶10 After briefly discussing the standard of review, we interpret section 26-2-305(1)(a). We evaluate whether the legislature intended to create a separate crime by enacting this statute. We conclude that it did not. Finally, we explain that a Bagby analysis is unnecessary because it’s a tool that courts use to determine legislative intent when a statute is ambiguous, and here we conclude that the intent is clear from section 26-2-305(1)(a) ’s plain language.

A. Standard of Review

¶11 We review de novo issues of statutory interpretation, such as those here. McCoy v. People , 2019 CO 44, ¶ 37, 442 P.3d 379, 389. In interpreting statutes, our primary goal is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature’s intent. Id. To do so, we look first to the statute’s plain language, giving words and phrases their plain and ordinary meanings. Id. We may not add or subtract words from the statute, but instead read the words and phrases in context, construing them according to the rules of grammar and common usage. Id. at ¶¶ 37–38, 442 P.3d at 389 ; People v. Diaz , 2015 CO 28, ¶ 12, 347 P.3d 621, 624.

¶12 We also read the legislative scheme as a whole, giving consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect to all of its parts and avoiding an interpretation that would render any words or phrases superfluous or lead to an illogical or absurd result. McCoy , ¶ 38, 442 P.3d at 389. If the statute is clear and unambiguous, we need not resort to further aids of construction. Id.

B. Under the Plain Language, Section 26-2-305(1)(a) Does Not Create a Separate Crime

¶13 From our perspective, the crucial language of section 26-2-305(1)(a) is "commits the crime of theft." Viewed in context, we see that the legislature has provided in relevant part that

[a]ny person who obtains ... [food stamp benefits to which they are not legally entitled] ... by means of a willfully false statement or representation ... with intent to defeat the purposes of the food stamp program commits the crime of theft , which crime shall be classified in accordance with section 18-4-401(2), C.R.S., and which crime shall be punished as provided in section 18-1.3-401, C.R.S., if the crime is classified as a felony, or section 18-1.3-501, C.R.S., if the crime is classified as a misdemeanor. Any person violating the provisions of this subsection (1) is disqualified from participation in the food stamp program for one year for a first offense, two years for a second offense, and permanently for a third or subsequent offense.

§ 26-2-305(1)(a) (emphasis added).

¶14 Based on the ordinary meaning of the phrase "commits the crime of theft," we must assume the legislature meant what it said—when an individual engages in the conduct outlined, he or she commits the crime of theft.

¶15 The legislature has used similar, but more specific, language in other statutes to create a separate crime. For example, section 26-2-306, C.R.S. (2019), creates the crime of trafficking in food stamps. It provides that "[a]ny person who obtains, uses, transfers, or disposes of food stamps in the manner specified in [this section] commits the offense of trafficking in food stamps ." § 26-2-306(1) (emphasis added); see also, e.g. , § 18-4-408(1), C.R.S. (2019) ("Any person who ... steals or discloses to an unauthorized person a trade secret ... commits theft of a trade secret ." (emphasis added)).

¶16 Thus, the legislature clearly knows how to use the phrase "commits a [crime]" to create a separate crime when it intends to do so. It didn’t do that in section 26-2-305(1)(a). For example, the legislature didn’t say that an individual commits the crime of food stamp fraud or theft of food stamps or any other food-stamp-specific crime when he or she engages in the prohibited conduct. And we may not add those words here.

¶17 So, we’re done, right? Not quite. Rojas posits several arguments premised on the surrounding statutory language and on another statute that seem to suggest that theft and theft of food stamps are separate crimes. We address each.

C. Rojas’s Supplemental Arguments Based on the Statute’s Plain Language
1. The Classification Language

¶18 Rojas contends that our interpretation ignores the statute’s subsequent language: "which crime shall be classified in accordance with section 18-4-401(2)." § 26-2-305(1)(a) (emphasis added). She emphasizes that this reference is only to subsection (2), which provides the offense classifications for theft. The reference is not to subsection (1), which provides the elements of the crime of theft. Thus, Rojas concludes that the legislature intended only to incorporate the classification scheme and not the crime itself.

¶19 We reject this argument because it would render superfluous the plain language that someone who violates section 26-2-305(1)(a) "commits the crime of theft." There would be no need to refer to the crime of general theft if the legislature were creating a separate crime—the legislature could have included only the classification reference if that is all it intended to incorporate.

¶20 Moreover, the reference to classification seems to undercut Rojas’s argument. Consider that, unlike other statutes creating a separate crime, section 26-2-305(1)(a) contains no independent classification or criminal punishment schemes. Again, by way of example, section 26-2-306 provides a detailed classification scheme based on the value of the food stamps trafficked. § 26-2-306(2), (3) ; see also § 18-4-408(3)(a) (distinguishing between felony and misdemeanor theft of trade secrets). These classification and punishment schemes are independent of those found in the general criminal statutes. Thus, when paired with the plain language identifying the crime committed, they provide a separate mode of prosecution and punishment.

¶21 By contrast, in section 26-2-305(1)(a), the legislature referred to...

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    • United States
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    ...remand for a new trial.1 I. Facts and Procedural History¶5 This is the second time we have reviewed this case. See People v. Rojas, 2019 CO 86M, 450 P.3d 719 (" Rojas I "). Brooke Rojas was convicted of two counts of theft based on her improper receipt of food stamp benefits.¶6 Rojas initia......
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