People v. Summitt

Decision Date20 March 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04SC396.,04SC396.
Citation132 P.3d 320
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner, v. Matthew SUMMITT, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Matthew S. Holman, First Assistant Attorney General, Denver, for Petitioner.

David S. Kaplan, Colorado State Public Defender, Alan Kratz, Deputy State Public Defender, Denver, for Respondent.

HOBBS, Justice.

We granted certiorari to review the court of appeals' judgment in People v. Summitt, 104 P.3d 232 (Colo.App.2004), to determine whether it properly set aside convictions for second degree kidnapping, second degree assault, and domestic violence. The court of appeals ruled that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence surrounding defendant's arrest, and admission of the evidence infringed unconstitutionally upon the exercise of defendant's Fourth Amendment rights.1

Taking into account proof before the jury, the circumstances of this case were that defendant seized the victim as she was entering her house, carried her off in his car, prevented her twice from escaping, pushed her from the moving car, repeatedly warned her not to tell third persons that he had pushed her out of the car, and left the hospital where the victim was being treated after being told by the woman's relatives to go home. The police arrested the defendant outside his home after they arrived, unsuccessfully sought consent from his mother to enter the home, learned that he was in the house by obtaining his driver's license through the door, and told his mother that if defendant did not come out of the house they would wait until they had obtained an arrest warrant and arrest him. He then came out and was placed under arrest.

The trial court ruled that the circumstances surrounding the arrest were relevant to show defendant's consciousness of guilt as part of the defendant's efforts to conceal his crime and avoid arrest; the trial court also instructed the jury that defendant had the constitutional right to remain in his home until the police had secured an arrest warrant.

We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the circumstances of the arrest to show consciousness of guilt, because there was no evidence in the case that defendant was in flight and avoiding arrest. However, we disagree with the court of appeals that admission of this evidence burdened unconstitutionally the exercise of defendant's Fourth Amendment rights; and we find that the trial court's evidentiary ruling error was harmless and does not warrant reversal. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and remand this case with directions to reinstate defendant's convictions.

I.

Evidence before the jury of the circumstances giving rise to the arrest of Matthew Summitt ("Summitt") included the following. After driving the victim home to her house from a bar late at night, Summitt became angry with her when she wanted the evening to end. Summitt knocked her down outside the house, slung her over his shoulders, carried her to his car, and drove away. He drove the car into a ditch, causing a flat tire. The victim tried to escape twice while he tried to fix the flat. Both times Summitt forced her back into the car.

Unable to fix the flat, Summitt restarted the car and began driving at a high rate of speed. The victim opened the passenger side door looking for another opportunity to escape. Summitt pushed her out of the moving car.2 He then stopped, put her back in the car, and drove her back to her house, where she lived with an aunt and uncle. While at her house, Summitt warned the victim not to tell anyone he had pushed her out of the car.

The victim's aunt and uncle drove her to the hospital. Sometime later, Summitt arrived at the hospital. While at the hospital, Summitt again warned the victim in the presence of the aunt not to tell anyone he had pushed her.3 The victim's uncle told Summitt at the hospital "there [was not] any reason for [Summitt] to be [at the hospital], and the best thing would be for [Summitt] to just go home." The victim's aunt also told Summitt to leave. When asked at trial why she had said this to him, she replied "[b]ecause he was going to be arrested." Summitt left the hospital before the police arrived and drove to his house, where he lived with his mother.

Upon arriving at the hospital, the police interviewed the victim and her aunt and uncle. From the interviews, the police determined Summitt's address and sent a number of officers to that location. The police had an interchange with Summitt's mother, obtained his driver's license through a slit in a screen door, and, when they did not obtain her consent to enter the house, they said they would stay outside until an arrest warrant arrived and arrest him. Summitt then exited the house and submitted to arrest.

At trial, the prosecutor told the jury in opening statement that they should pay attention to the circumstances of Summitt's arrest as important in fitting the pieces of the case together. During the prosecution's case-in-chief, when Deputy Long began to testify regarding Summitt's refusal to exit the house and his mother's refusal to allow the police to enter, defense counsel objected, asserting that the testimony commented improperly on Summitt's constitutional rights. The trial court sustained the objection, but allowed the officer's testimony prior to the objection — which related to the circumstances surrounding Summitt's arrest — to be admitted as evidence of Summitt's consciousness of guilt.

I think the question has gone as far as I'm going to allow it to go. I'll sustain the objection, and I will make the comment that the defendant — I'm allowing this testimony to come in, as it relates to the defendant's consciousness of guilt, and for no other matter. I will also advise the jury that the police, before they can enter anybody's home, even for arrest of that person, are required, by law, to obtain . . . an arrest warrant, and that a person is not required to allow a police officer into his or her home.

At the close of evidence, prior to bringing the jury into the courtroom and reading instructions, the trial court again clarified that Summitt had a right to remain in his home until the police obtained an arrest warrant, but that he did not have the right to avoid arrest.

I want to make a comment about an issue that came up yesterday. It involved the testimony regarding what occurred at the defendant's home. There had been an objection raised to that, and the Court did give a curative instruction to the jury, an oral instruction to the jury. The court just wants to expand, I suppose, on the record. Although the defendant does have a right, pursuant to constitution, to be secure in his home, and that the police had no authority to go into his home to affect an arrest, even in this situation, absent a warrant, the defendant did not have a right to avoid arrest, and so therefore I believe that the testimony was, in fact, relevant, and not unduly prejudicial or inappropriately prejudicial to the Defendant.

During rebuttal closing argument, the prosecutor referred to the circumstances surrounding Summitt's arrest as "hiding" and "huddling" in the house. The prosecution added the following comment on flight, avoidance of arrest, and consciousness of guilt:

(After leaving the hospital) where did he go? He ran, and hid, behind his mother's doors, and he stayed there until the cops flushed him out. Is that the conduct of a guy that's done nothing wrong, members of the jury? Or is that somebody huddled up inside, scared out of his wits, that finally the jig is up and he is going to be held responsible for what he has done? And I suggest to you it's the latter.

The jury convicted Summitt of second degree kidnapping, second degree assault, and domestic violence. Summitt appealed these convictions to the court of appeals. He asserted, in part, that the evidence of his refusal of the police request to exit the house was not relevant to show consciousness of guilt. He also contended that admission of the evidence unconstitutionally implicated his Fourth Amendment rights. The court of appeals agreed with Summitt on both points. Applying constitutional harmless error analysis, it reversed the convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.

On appeal to us, the prosecution contends that the court of appeals erred in its constitutional holding and that this case more properly involves an evidentiary analysis. We agree on both of these points. However, in employing an evidentiary analysis, we conclude that the evidence surrounding the circumstances of Summitt's arrest did not show that Summitt went to and remained in the house in the course of flight and avoiding arrest. Accordingly, admission of the evidence to show consciousness of guilt was an abuse of discretion. Nevertheless, the admission of the evidence did not unconstitutionally infringe upon or burden Summitt's Fourth Amendment rights, and the evidentiary ruling error was harmless.

II.

We hold that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the circumstances of the arrest to show consciousness of guilt, because there was no evidence in the case that defendant was in flight and concealing himself to avoid arrest. However, we disagree with the court of appeals that admission of this evidence burdened unconstitutionally the exercise of defendant's Fourth Amendment rights; and we find that the trial court's evidentiary ruling error was harmless and does not warrant reversal.

A. Standard of Review

A reviewing court may not reverse a trial court's decision to admit or exclude evidence absent a showing that the trial court abused its discretion. People v. Welsh, 80 P.3d 296, 304 (Colo.2003). To overcome this presumption in favor of the trial court's ruling, the appellant must demonstrate the decision was "manifestly...

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