Perez v. People, Supreme Court Case No. 19SC356

Docket NºSupreme Court Case No. 19SC356
Citation479 P.3d 430
Case DateJanuary 19, 2021
CourtSupreme Court of Colorado

479 P.3d 430

Marcus PEREZ, Petitioner/Cross-Respondent,
v.
The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent/Cross-Petitioner.

Supreme Court Case No. 19SC356

Supreme Court of Colorado.

January 19, 2021
As Modified on Denial of Rehearing February 8, 2021


Attorneys for Petitioner/Cross-Respondent: Laura E. Schwartz, Denver, Colorado, The Noble Law Firm, LLC, Antony Noble, Lakewood, Colorado

Attorneys for Respondent/Cross-Petitioner: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Brittany L. Limes, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado

En Banc

CHIEF JUSTICE BOATRIGHT delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 As Marcus Perez was being arrested after a lengthy foot pursuit, Officer Walsh found two live shotgun shells in Perez's pocket. Without giving Perez Miranda warnings, Officer Walsh asked him, "Where's the gun?" Perez answered that he had thrown the gun away. At a suppression hearing, Perez argued that his answer should be suppressed because he was not Mirandized before the officer questioned him. The trial court disagreed, finding that the public safety exception to Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966), applied. A jury convicted Perez of second-degree assault on a peace officer and four counts of possession of a dangerous weapon by a previous offender ("POWPO").

¶2 Perez appealed, contending that the public safety exception did not apply. The court of appeals agreed but deemed the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and affirmed the convictions. People v. Perez , 2019 COA 48, ¶¶ 21, 24, ––– P.3d ––––.

¶3 Perez petitioned this court for certiorari review of the court of appeals’ decision, arguing that the error was not harmless and that his convictions should be overturned. The People cross-petitioned, arguing that the court of appeals erred when it held that the public safety exception did not apply. We granted certiorari on both issues.1 We now

479 P.3d 432

hold that, under the facts of this case, the public safety exception applied, and Officer Walsh was not required to give Miranda warnings before inquiring about the gun's location. Therefore, we affirm the court of appeals’ opinion on other grounds.2

I. Facts and Procedural History

¶4 In February 2014, police officers stopped a vehicle in which Perez was a passenger. As the officers approached the vehicle, they noticed the occupants acting as though they were concealing something. As a result, one officer approached the driver-side door while another approached the passenger-side door. The officers observed Perez acting nervously, and Perez initially refused to interact with the officer on his side of the car. Ultimately, Perez provided that officer with a name. When the officer discovered that no such name existed in a police database, he asked Perez to step out of the vehicle.

¶5 Perez got out of the car and immediately fled. The officer followed on foot. Perez jumped fences, running through residential backyards. He crossed a busy street and, in the parking lot of a liquor store, attempted to steal an occupied car. When the occupant refused to get out of the car, Perez ran into the liquor store. At that point, the officer lost sight of Perez. But after an employee of the liquor store indicated that Perez had run to the back of the store, the officer regained sight of Perez as Perez exited the back door.

¶6 Eventually, backup officers, including Officer Walsh, arrived to help. The officers caught up with Perez in a residential backyard. Perez assumed a fighting stance and resisted arrest. Throwing punches, Perez broke an officer's nose before he was handcuffed.

¶7 Officer Walsh frisked Perez for weapons and found two live shotgun shells in his pocket. Without providing Perez Miranda warnings, Officer Walsh immediately asked, "Where's the gun?" Perez responded that he "threw it away." Officer Walsh again asked Perez about the location of the gun. This time, Perez's response was unintelligible, and Walsh stopped his questioning. Later, officers discovered a short shotgun in the stopped vehicle, lodged between the center console and the passenger seat; the shotgun was capable of firing the live shells found on Perez.

¶8 The People charged Perez with second-degree assault on a peace officer and eight counts of POWPO.3 Before trial, Perez moved to suppress his statement that he threw the gun away, arguing that his Fifth Amendment right was violated because Officer Walsh did not give him Miranda warnings before asking the whereabouts of the gun. The trial court denied the motion, concluding that Officer Walsh's question fell within the public safety exception to Miranda . The statement was admitted at trial. Ultimately, the jury found Perez guilty of second-degree assault on a peace officer and four of the eight counts of POWPO.

¶9 Perez appealed, reasserting his Fifth Amendment argument. Perez , ¶ 8. A split division of the court of appeals agreed with him, holding that Officer Walsh's question was not covered by the public safety exception. The majority reasoned that, because Officer Walsh had no information suggesting a weapon was involved until discovering the two shotgun shells, he did not have " ‘every reason to believe’ that Perez had just discarded a shotgun while being chased." Id. at ¶¶ 19–20 (quoting New York v. Quarles , 467 U.S. 649, 657, 104 S.Ct. 2626, 81 L.Ed.2d 550 (1984) ). The majority thus concluded that

479 P.3d 433

admitting Perez's response to the impermissible interrogation was error.

¶10 Nevertheless, the majority affirmed Perez's convictions, deeming the error harmlesss beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at ¶ 24. It reasoned that "evidence of Perez's possession of the weapon was overwhelming without regard to the statement." Id. at ¶ 25. First, the shotgun was located where Perez had easy access to it—between the center console and the passenger seat where he had been sitting. Id. Second, Perez possessed ammunition that was capable of being fired by the shotgun. Id. Last, Perez fled from the police. Id.4

¶11 Judge Berger specially concurred. People v. Perez , 2019 COA 48, ––– P.3d –––– (Berger, J., specially concurring). He concluded that this case "presents a straightforward application of Quarles ," the U.S. Supreme Court case which established the public safety exception. Id. at ¶ 40. He noted that Perez led police on a lengthy foot chase across a busy street as well as through commercial and residential areas. Id. at ¶ 45. He reasoned that the possibility of Perez having left a loaded gun in any of those locations posed a safety threat to police and members of the public. Id. Therefore, in Judge Berger's view, the question "Where's the gun?" fell squarely within the public safety exception to Miranda . Id. at ¶ 46.

¶12 We granted certiorari and now affirm on other grounds.

II. Analysis

¶13 We begin by outlining the appropriate standard of review. Next, we detail relevant case law on the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination, including the warnings prescribed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Miranda decision. We then turn to the exception to Miranda relevant in this case—the public safety exception—reviewing Quarles and Colorado law applying Quarles . Finally, we apply the relevant law and hold that, under the facts of this case, the public safety exception applied, meaning Officer Walsh was not required to give Miranda warnings before asking Perez where the gun was. Accordingly, we affirm the court of appeals’ opinion on other grounds.

A. Standard of Review

¶14 Whether a custodial interrogation occurred in violation of Miranda is a mixed question of law and fact. People v. Barraza , 2013 CO 20, ¶ 15, 298 P.3d 922, 925. We defer to the trial court's factual findings if they are supported by the record, but we review the legal effect of those findings de novo. Id. , 298 P.3d at 926.

B. Miranda v. Arizona

¶15 The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures that no criminal defendant may be compelled to testify against himself. In Miranda , the U.S. Supreme Court held that police must inform a person of his right against self-incrimination when he is subjected to custodial interrogation. 384 U.S. at 478–79, 86 S.Ct. 1602. The Court held that such a rule is necessary to protect the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination because custodial interrogations create inherently coercive environments that make Miranda warnings necessary to remind...

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1 practice notes
  • Schwartz v. State, S-20-0186
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • March 31, 2021
    ...truck did not fall under the public safety exception because defendant was secured and away from the truck at the time); Perez v. People , 479 P.3d 430 (Colo. 2021) (After a traffic stop and foot chase, officers discovered shotgun rounds in defendant's pocket and asked where the gun was. Th......
1 cases
  • Schwartz v. State, S-20-0186
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wyoming
    • March 31, 2021
    ...truck did not fall under the public safety exception because defendant was secured and away from the truck at the time); Perez v. People , 479 P.3d 430 (Colo. 2021) (After a traffic stop and foot chase, officers discovered shotgun rounds in defendant's pocket and asked where the gun was. Th......

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