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Colorado Supreme Court Holds Ameliorative Amendments Apply Retroactively to Non-Final Convictions

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Colorado held that amendments to statutes favorable to defendants apply retroactively to non-final convictions, unless the statute contains language that expressly provides it applies only prospectively, resolving a conflict between statutes and its own precedent.

John Stellabotte owned a towing company, illegally towed vehicles and demanded payment. He was charged with felony theft. At the time of his illegal scheme, it constituted a class 4 felony. Prior to his conviction, the General Assembly amended the theft statute by making it a class 5 felony, with a correspondingly lower sentence. The amendment did not indicate whether it applied prospectively or retroactively.

The trial court did not apply the amendment to his conviction, which could have reduced his sentence by half. On appeal, Stellabotte raised for the first time that the favorable amendment applied retroactively to him, and a divided court of appeals agreed. The Colorado Supreme Court granted the State’s petition for a writ of certiorari.

In People v. Thomas, 525 P.2d 1136 (Colo. 1974), the Colorado Supreme Court held that ameliorative amendments to a statute that do not indicate whether they’re prospective or retroactive apply retroactively to defendants whose convictions are not yet final on appeal. Since then, the Court also has held that an amended statute favorable to a defendant cannot apply retroactively, unless the amendment expressly says so. The first question before the Court was whether Thomas was still good law. The Court said it was.

Thomas relied on Colorado Revised Statutes Section 18-1-410(1)(f), which provides relief where “there has been significant change in the law ... allowing in the interest of justice retroactive application of the changed legal standard.”

The Court held that, under this rule, an amendment to the law under which Thomas was charged that lowered the severity of the degree had to apply retroactively to him, even if the amendment did not say it was retroactive.

Riley v. People, 828 P.2d 254 (Colo. 1992), however, “muddied the waters” by stating that a favorably amended statute cannot apply retroactively, unless the amendment expressly says so, which the current Court observed “appears to have flipped what we actually said” in the Thomas line of cases. In Riley, the Court stated the obvious that a criminal statute that provided for prospective application did not also apply retroactively. Riley did not distinguish itself from the holding in Thomas because they dealt with different facts, i.e., a statute that was silent about retroactivity and one that expressly denied retroactivity.

Both cases remain good law, the Court concluded. Riley involved certain facts that were different from those in Thomas, the Court said, finding that the holding in Riley was actually dicta, and not binding authority. That dicta, the Court explained, was merely the discussion in the case (of facts not actually present in the case) and “not necessary to the decision” reached. To clear up the confusion, the Court expressly disavowed the dicta in Riley and its subsequent line of cases reiterating that conflict with the rule set forth in Thomas.

The next question was how to reconcile § 18-1-410(1)(f) with §§ 2-4-202 and 2-4-303. Section 2-4-202 provides that “a statute is presumed to be prospective in its operation.” Section 2-4-303 provides that repeal or amendment of a statute does not apply retroactively unless the rule “expressly” says so. When statutes conflict, as here, the specific statutory provision “acts as an exception” to the more general statute, the Court explained, “carving out a special niche” to allow the exception to the general rules in §§ 2-4-202 and 2-4-303.

Applying the foregoing principles of statutory construction, the Court concluded that § 18-1-410(1)(f) “prevails.” It “is a more specific provision than the broad presumptions of prospective application set out in” the other two sections at issue. Thus, the Court ruled that § 18-1-410(1)(f) “serves as an exception to the general presumption of prospectivity that sections 2-4-202 and 2-4-303 provide.”

The Court held that “ameliorative, amendatory legislation applies retroactively to non-final convictions under section 18-1-410(1)(f), unless the amendment contains language indicating it applies only prospectively.” The amendment in question is silent on the matter. Therefore, the Court ruled “Stellabotte should have received the benefit of retroactively application in his sentencing.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: People v. Stellabotte, 421 P.3d 174 (Colo. 2018). 

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