Rojas v. People

Citation504 P.3d 296
Decision Date22 February 2022
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 20SC399
Parties Brooke E. ROJAS, Petitioner, v. The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

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

Attorneys for Respondent: Philip J. Weiser, Attorney General, Paul Koehler, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado

En Banc

JUSTICE HOOD delivered the Opinion of the Court, in which JUSTICE MÁRQUEZ, JUSTICE GABRIEL, JUSTICE HART, and JUSTICE SAMOUR joined.

¶1 Today, we discard a troublesome relic from Colorado's common law of evidence: the res gestae doctrine.

¶2 Although it has morphed over time, the res gestae doctrine these days is often used as a shortcut for admitting character evidence about criminal defendants. While we seek to ensure that defendants are tried for the crimes with which they've been charged and not for seeming to have a propensity to engage in criminal conduct, "[c]riminal occurrences do not always take place on a sterile stage." People v. Lobato, 187 Colo. 285, 530 P.2d 493, 496 (1975). So, res gestae evidence — septic though it sometimes may be—has been admitted because it is "linked in time and circumstances to the charged crime" or "is necessary to complete the story of the crime for the jury." Zapata v. People, 2018 CO 82, ¶ 58, 428 P.3d 517, 530 (quoting People v. Skufca, 176 P.3d 83, 86 (Colo. 2008) ); People v. Quintana, 882 P.2d 1366, 1373 (Colo. 1994). In short, we have treated res gestae evidence, in various ways, as intrinsic to the charged offenses and therefore not subject to the rules limiting the admissibility of extrinsic, uncharged misconduct evidence. But because res gestae is so ill-defined, such uncharged misconduct evidence too often dodges the rules and slips into cases without the requisite scrutiny.

¶3 It is time for us to bury res gestae. This court's adoption of the Colorado Rules of Evidence more than four decades ago should have rendered the res gestae doctrine obsolete. Under the Rules, if evidence is probative of a material fact, then it is relevant and presumptively admissible. CRE 401, 402. As a general matter, only when the probative value of relevant evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice does it need to be excluded. CRE 403. And uncharged misconduct evidence that meets certain requirements can be admitted to show, for example, that a defendant had the motive, opportunity, or intent to commit the charged offense. CRE 404(b). By continuing to rely on res gestae as a standalone basis for admissibility and allowing the vagueness of res gestae to persist next to these more analytically demanding rules of relevancy, we have created a breeding ground for confusion, inconsistency, and unfairness.

¶4 Therefore, we join other jurisdictions that have abandoned this always-nebulous and long-superfluous doctrine. In the case at hand, our decision to abolish the res gestae doctrine in criminal cases prompts us to reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and 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 initially applied for food stamp benefits from the Larimer County Department of Human Services (the "Department") in August 2012 when she had no income. She received a recertification letter in December, which she submitted in mid-January 2013, indicating that she still had no income. And although she had not yet received a paycheck when she submitted the recertification letter, Rojas had started a new job on January 1.

¶7 Rojas continued receiving food stamp benefits every month until July, when she inadvertently allowed them to lapse. She reapplied in August 2013. Although still working, Rojas reported that she had no income. The Department checked Rojas's employment status in connection with the August application and learned that she was making about $55,000 a year (to support a family of seven). The Department determined that Rojas had received $5,632 in benefits to which she was not legally entitled.

¶8 The prosecution charged Rojas with two counts of theft under section 18–4–401(1)(a), C.R.S. (2021). The first count was for the benefits she received between February 1, 2013, and June 4, 2013; the second count was for the benefits she received between June 5, 2013, and July 31, 2013.2

¶9 At trial, Rojas's defense was that she lacked the requisite culpable mental state — she didn't knowingly deceive the government; she just misunderstood the forms. The prosecution's theory was that Rojas's misstatements on the January recertification form were not an oversight but rather a knowing attempt to receive benefits to which she wasn't legally entitled.

¶10 Before trial, Rojas objected to the prosecution's proposed admission of the August 2013 application because it exceeded the time period of the charged offenses and didn't lead to the receipt of any benefits. The prosecution countered that the application was admissible as res gestae evidence — to show how the investigation began — and as evidence of specific intent. The court found it relevant as circumstantial evidence of Rojas's mental state.

¶11 On the morning of trial, Rojas renewed her objection to introduction of the August 2013 application, again asserting that it was irrelevant and unfairly prejudicial. She further argued the application was impermissible 404(b) evidence. And she requested a limiting instruction to explain to the jurors that they may consider the application "for purposes of explaining how the investigation of Ms. Rojas began only and ... not ... for any other purpose." The court determined that the application was not 404(b) evidence, was relevant to the charged offenses, and was admissible. The jury received no limiting instruction.

¶12 The prosecution questioned Rojas about the August 2013 application during her testimony, highlighting that she knew she was employed at that time yet still indicated on the form that she was not. The prosecution also discussed the August 2013 application in its opening and closing arguments as evidence of Rojas's intent.

¶13 A jury convicted Rojas of two counts of theft under the general theft statute for obtaining food stamp benefits to which she was not legally entitled. Rojas appealed, and a division of the court of appeals vacated the convictions. People v. Rojas, 2018 COA 20, ¶ 40, 490 P.3d 391, 398. We granted certiorari to review whether the legislature had "created an independent criminal offense for food stamp theft that abrogated the State's authority to prosecute under the general theft statute." Rojas I, ¶ 9 n.1, 450 P.3d at 721 n.1. Concluding it had not, we reversed the court of appeals' judgment and remanded for the division to consider any remaining issues on appeal. Id. at ¶ 28, 450 P.3d at 724.

¶14 On remand, the division addressed the three remaining contentions and affirmed Rojas's convictions, but it remanded for resentencing and correction of the mittimus to reflect statutory changes that reduced the felony level of her offenses. People v. Rojas, 2020 COA 61, ¶ 32, 490 P.3d 744, 749 (" Rojas II "). Rojas again petitioned this court for certiorari review, which we granted.3

II. Analysis

¶15 After identifying the standard of review, we describe the evolution of the res gestae doctrine in Colorado. We then consider some of the criticism of the doctrine before concluding that the modern Rules of Evidence have rendered the res gestae doctrine superfluous. In the interest of providing guidance going forward, we also discuss what should trigger 404(b) scrutiny under the modern Rules.

A. Standard of Review

¶16 We review a trial court's evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. Venalonzo v. People, 2017 CO 9, ¶ 15, 388 P.3d 868, 873. A trial court abuses its discretion when its ruling is based on an erroneous view of the law. People v. Wadle, 97 P.3d 932, 936 (Colo. 2004).

¶17 In reviewing a trial court's ruling, appellate courts ordinarily adhere to precedent under the doctrine of stare decisis. See Love v. Klosky, 2018 CO 20, ¶ 14, 413 P.3d 1267, 1270. However, the doctrine is not so inflexible that we can't reevaluate our precedent where "we are ‘clearly convinced that the rule was originally erroneous or is no longer sound because of changing conditions and that more good than harm will come from departing from precedent.’ " McShane v. Stirling Ranch Prop. Owners Ass'n, Inc., 2017 CO 38, ¶ 26, 393 P.3d 978, 984 (quoting People v. Blehm, 983 P.2d 779, 788 (Colo. 1999) ); People v. LaRosa, 2013 CO 2, ¶¶ 30–31, 293 P.3d 567, 574–75 (departing from stare decisis after concluding there were sound reasons for doing so).

B. The Evolution of the Res Gestae Doctrine in Colorado

¶18 Res gestae has deep roots in American common law. The Supreme Court first referenced the doctrine in 1817, Leeds v. Marine Ins. Co., 15 U.S. (2 Wheat.) 380, 383, 4 L.Ed. 266 (1817), and Colorado courts have recognized it since at least the 1870s, see Doane v. Glenn, 1 Colo. 495, 499-501 (1872), rev'd on other grounds by Doane v. Glenn, 88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 33, 22 L.Ed. 476 (1874). The Latin phrase, which means "things done," Res Gestae , Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019), encompassed evidence that was necessary to understand the charged crime:

Res gestae may be broadly defined as matter incidental to a main fact and explanatory of it, including acts and words which are so closely connected therewith as to constitute a part of it, and without a knowledge of which the main fact might not be properly understood. They are the events themselves speaking through the instinctive words and acts of participants; the circumstances, facts and declarations which grow out of the main fact, are contemporaneous with it and serve to
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