Law360 (June 30, 2020, 8:46 PM EDT) -- The Colorado Supreme Court has established criteria by which trial courts can grant requests for postponement and a tolling of speedy trial periods because of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that the courts are facing a Catch-22 as they try to balance defendants' rights and scheduling concerns.
In Monday's en banc opinion, written by Justice Carlos A. Samour Jr., the high court said trial courts may grant the prosecution a postponement with a tolling of the speedy trial period for up to six months if certain conditions are met. Prosecutors must establish that evidence material to their case is unavailable because of the public health crisis, that they exercised due diligence to obtain that evidence and that it's reasonably believable the evidence will be available on the new trial date.
"Because the county court erred in the two cases before us, we make the rule to show cause absolute and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion," Justice Samour wrote.
The case stems from two unrelated criminal cases pending before the same judge in Gilpin County, both of which were scheduled for trial on March 17. In one case, Maurice Leviticus Lucy pled not guilty to criminal mischief, and in the other, Desta Adane Meresa pled not guilty to violation of a criminal protection order and unlawful sexual contact, according to the opinion.
On March 16, the chief judge of the district issued an administrative order requiring that all jury trials set in the district through May 1 be vacated because of the COVID-19 pandemic unless there were exigent circumstances or speedy trial constraints. Both cases were vacated.
The prosecution filed motions to postpone the cases and toll the speedy trial period in each. Without resolving the motions, the court postponed both cases until May 13 — more than a month after their speedy trial deadlines, according to the ruling.
The trial court later said its finding that postponements in the cases were necessary were preliminary, and that the final ruling on prosecutors' motions seeking clarification would have to be delayed until the May 13 hearing. But the state's high court said Monday the trial court's actions had the same effect as if it had issued final orders postponing the cases without addressing the question of speedy trial or resolving prosecutors' requests to toll speedy trial and make related findings.
"We understand that the court's postponement of the trials was precipitated by the Chief Judge's first order. But that order did not sanction speedy trial violations; to the contrary, it made an exception for cases in which the speedy trial deadline was imminent," Justice Samour wrote.
The high court said that on remand the lower court must give the prosecution a chance to make the required showing before the court rules on each motion and makes findings regarding the speedy trial period. The court said the period of delay caused by this appeal is excluded from the computation of time within which Lucy and Meresa must be brought to trial.
"Though we appreciate the extraordinary situation the county court confronted and fully understand that its actions were sparked by an administrative order from the Chief Judge, this was nevertheless error," Judge Samour wrote.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said in a statement Tuesday he is pleased the high court clarified that state law allows courts to consider how the COVID-19 pandemic affects the availability of evidence in scheduling criminal trials.
The Colorado Public Defender's Office, which represents Lucy and Meresa, couldn't be reached for comment.
The people of the state of Colorado are represented by Attorney General Philip J. Weiser, L. Andrew Cooper and Joseph G. Michaels with the Attorney General's Office, Peter A. Weir, District Attorney for the First Judicial District and Appellate Deputy District Attorney Colleen R. Lamb.
Lucy and Meresa are represented by the Public Defender's Office in Golden, Colorado.
The case is In re: The People of the State of Colorado v. Maurice Leviticus Lucy and The People of the State of Colorado v. Desta Adane Meresa, case number 20SA120, in the Colorado Supreme Court.
--Editing by Amy Rowe.
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