People v. Torline, Court of Appeals No. 18CA1156

Docket NºCourt of Appeals No. 18CA1156
Citation487 P.3d 1284
Case DateNovember 12, 2020
CourtCourt of Appeals of Colorado

487 P.3d 1284

The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
Aaron Snyder TORLINE, Defendant-Appellant.

Court of Appeals No. 18CA1156

Colorado Court of Appeals, Division VII.

Announced November 12, 2020


Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Shelby Krantz, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee

Tanja Heggins, Alternate Defense Counsel, Denver, Colorado, for Defendant-Appellant

Opinion by JUDGE NAVARRO

487 P.3d 1286

¶ 1 As a matter of first impression, we conclude that applying a Colorado statute criminalizing the possession and growing of marijuana to a person who conducts such activities for religious reasons does not violate the person's rights under the Free Exercise Clauses of the United States and Colorado Constitutions. As a result, we affirm the judgment of conviction entered against defendant, Aaron Snyder Torline.

I. Factual and Procedural History

¶ 2 In July 2016, Mesa County police officers noticed Torline and another person walking in and out of a garage and loading trash bags into the bed of a pickup truck, which the other person then drove away. Officers stopped the truck for a traffic infraction. A police dog alerted to the presence of drugs, and police discovered that the trash bags contained marijuana.

¶ 3 Officers contacted Torline, who said there was a marijuana growing operation inside the garage. Torline consented to a search and explained his operation. He estimated that he was growing approximately one hundred and fifteen plants, and that he processed about ten plants per month with a yield of about two ounces per plant.

¶ 4 The prosecution charged Torline with cultivation of marijuana, thirty or more plants, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana or marijuana concentrate, more than five pounds but not more than fifty pounds. See § 18-18-406(2)(b)(I), (2)(b)(III)(B), (3)(a)(I), C.R.S. 2016.1 Torline's counsel expressed his wish to raise an "affirmative defense" to the charges on the ground that section 18-18-406 violates Torline's constitutional rights because he engaged in the charged conduct pursuant to a sincerely held religious belief. Defense counsel also asked the trial court to instruct the jury on that defense.

¶ 5 In support, Torline's attorney argued the following. Torline is an ordained minister with the Hawaii Cannabis Ministry, an organization professing the belief that the cannabis plant is a gift from God and can aid in the experience of spirituality. The ministry incorporates cannabis into its religious practices, including its prayers, rituals, and sacraments. It has registered members, a hierarchy, a system of beliefs, and holy days. As a "ganja minister," Torline provides marijuana to members of his congregation, which numbers approximately thirty people in Grand Junction.

¶ 6 The trial court concluded that Colorado law does not support Torline's proposed defense and denied his motion to instruct the jury on the defense. Torline then waived his right to a jury trial, was tried by the court, and was convicted as charged.

II. The Free Exercise Clauses

¶ 7 Torline contends that section 18-18-406 was "unconstitutionally applied to him" in violation of the Free Exercise Clauses of the Federal and State Constitutions. Relatedly, he argues that the trial court erred by declining to instruct the jury on his defense that his conduct was privileged under the Constitutions.

A. Standard of Review and Foundational Principles

¶ 8 The constitutionality of a statute is a legal question that we review de novo. People v. Graves , 2016 CO 15, ¶ 9, 368 P.3d 317. Statutes are presumed to be constitutional, and the challenger bears the burden to prove their unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.

¶ 9 The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment provides, "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]." U.S. Const. amend. I.

487 P.3d 1287

The Free Exercise Clause has been made applicable to the states by incorporation into the Fourteenth Amendment. Emp't Div., Dep't of Human Res. v. Smith , 494 U.S. 872, 876-77, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990). Article II, section 4 of the Colorado Constitution provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever hereafter be guaranteed; and no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege or capacity, on account of his opinions concerning religion; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be construed to ... justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state. ... Nor shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.

Because the federal and state constitutional provisions embody similar values, we look for guidance in applying the Colorado provision to the body of law developed in the federal courts with respect to the meaning and application of the First Amendment. Conrad v. City & Cty. of Denver , 656 P.2d 662, 670-71 (Colo. 1982).

¶ 10 "The free exercise of religion means, first and foremost, the right to believe and profess whatever religious doctrine one desires." Smith , 494 U.S. at 877, 110 S.Ct. 1595. The exercise of religion can also involve the "performance of (or abstention from) physical acts." Id.

¶ 11 The Free Exercise Clause is not so limited in scope as to protect only those beliefs that are tenets of a traditional or "established religion." Martinez v. Indus. Comm'n of Colo. , 618 P.2d 738, 740 (Colo. App. 1980). If a person's religious beliefs are "sincere and meaningful," they fall within the ambit of First Amendment protection. United States v. Seeger , 380 U.S. 163, 166, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965). A person's claim "that his belief is an essential part of a religious faith must be given great weight." Id. at 184, 85 S.Ct. 850 ; Martinez , 618 P.2d at 740.

B. Analysis

¶ 12 At the time of Torline's conduct, section 18-18-406(3)(a) provided that, with exceptions not applicable here, "[i]t is unlawful for a person to knowingly cultivate, grow, or produce a marijuana plant or knowingly allow a marijuana plant to be cultivated, grown, or produced on land that the person owns, occupies, or controls."...

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1 practice notes
  • People v. Tarr, 18CA0485
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals of Colorado
    • February 24, 2022
    ...the challenger bears the burden to prove their unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt." People v. Torline, 2020 COA 160, ¶¶ 7-8, 487 P.3d 1284, 1286 (citation omitted) (addressing an as-applied challenge to a Colorado marijuana statute under the Free Exercise Clauses of the Federal a......
1 cases
  • People v. Tarr, 18CA0485
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals of Colorado
    • February 24, 2022
    ...the challenger bears the burden to prove their unconstitutionality beyond a reasonable doubt." People v. Torline, 2020 COA 160, ¶¶ 7-8, 487 P.3d 1284, 1286 (citation omitted) (addressing an as-applied challenge to a Colorado marijuana statute under the Free Exercise Clauses of the Federal a......

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