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People v. Garcia.

2022 COA 83. No. 19CA1629. Motor Vehicle Theft—Disqualification of Judge—Structural Error—Sufficiency of Evidence.

July 28, 2022

Defendant took his employer’s truck without permission and drove it off the road and across a drainage ditch, where it broke down. The next morning, defendant’s friend helped him tow the damaged truck back to his employer’s shop. Defendant was charged with first degree aggravated motor vehicle theft. In April 2018 Hopkins, then a deputy state public defender, appeared on behalf of defendant at a pretrial readiness conference. Both parties conceded that Judge Hopkins was appointed to the district court bench in July 2018 and then presided over the remainder of defendant’s case, including all pretrial hearings, the trial, and sentencing. Defendant was convicted as charged.

On appeal, defendant argued that Judge Hopkins was statutorily disqualified from presiding over his case because of her prior involvement in the case as his counsel and that this amounts to structural error. Under CRS § 16-6-201(1)(c), a judge of a court of record is disqualified to hear or try a case if the judge was counsel in the case. Here, Judge Hopkins appeared as counsel for defendant at the pretrial readiness conference and was therefore required to disqualify herself. Further, because Judge Hopkins was presumed by statute to be biased, defendant’s trial was “before a biased judge,” which is structural error.

Defendant also challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to convict him of first degree aggravated motor vehicle theft. He maintained that the evidence did not show that he knowingly caused damage to the truck because there was no evidence addressing the manner in which he drove the vehicle. Here, the evidence included testimony that the truck was driven through draws and over bumps and was extensively damaged, and defendant admitted that he “wrecked” the truck. The jury could reasonably infer from this evidence that defendant knowingly drove the truck over rough terrain for a considerable distance and knew that his conduct was practically certain to damage the truck. Accordingly, sufficient evidence supported the conviction.

The judgment of conviction was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial on the original charge before a different judge.

Official Colorado Court of Appeals proceedings can be found at the Colorado Court of Appeals website.

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