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Reduced Convictions and Penalties Presumptively Apply Retroactively to Non-Final Criminal Cases

By Sean J. Lacefield 

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If the Colorado General Assembly reduces the seriousness of a criminal conviction or penalty and doesn’t say whether the reduction applies to offenses committed before the change is effective, does it apply retroactively? On July 2, 2018, in People v. Stellabotte and People v. Patton, the Colorado Supreme Court answered ‘yes’.

In 2013, our state legislature amended Colorado’s theft statute by reducing conviction levels for theft values. For example, in 2012 a theft involving items valued between $1,000 and $20,000 was a class 4 felony. But the 2013 amendment lowered the classification of theft for items valued between $5,000 and $20,000 to a class 5 felony. Values that were previously a felony even became a misdemeanor.

In Stellabotte and Patton, the supreme court held that the 2013 amendment to the theft statute applied retroactively because the amendment did not expressly state it only applied prospectively. The majority opinion explained, “Section 18-1-410(1)(f)(I), C.R.S. (2017) provides for retroactive application of significant change in the law to a defendant’s conviction or sentence, but, under subsection (II), during only direct appeal, before the conviction is final.” Because Stellabotte and Patton committed their offenses before the 2013 amendment and their convictions were not final when the 2013 amendment became effective and they requested relief under the amendment before their convictions were final, the supreme court held they were entitled to the amendment’s ameliorative benefit.

While the Stellabotte and Patton opinions address the 2013 amendment to the theft statute, their holdings will apply to any change in the law to a defendant’s conviction or sentence that does not state it only applies to offenses committed on or after the amendment’s effective date.

The Stellabotte and Patton opinions follow the Colorado Supreme Court’s 2017 opinion in People v. Boyd, under which criminal defendants with non-final convictions for conduct legalized by Amendment 64 (Colorado’s recreational marijuana amendment) were entitled to have their convictions vacated.

If you have questions about a change in a criminal law, appealing a conviction, or seeking post-conviction relief, contact BHGR’s criminal defense group.