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People v Perkins.

2023 COA 38. No. 20CA0882. Arson—National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations—Expert Testimony—Shreck Hearing

May 4, 2023

Law enforcement, including two fire department fire investigators (the fire investigators), responded to an apartment building fire caused by an explosion. At the scene they found Perkins, who was badly injured, in the rubble of an apartment unit belonging to tenant Brady. The fire investigators concluded that disconnected natural gas lines in the basement of Brady’s apartment created a combustible mix of natural gas and air that ignited and caused the explosion. Perkins was charged in connection with the incident, and he filed a pretrial motion to exclude the fire investigators’ expert testimony or, alternatively, for the court to conduct a hearing under People v. Shreck, 22 P.3d 68 (Colo. 2001), to determine whether their testimony was admissible. The court denied the motion, and the fire investigators testified at trial as experts in fire investigation and origin and cause investigation, opining that the explosion originated in the basement of Brady’s apartment and that Perkins intentionally caused the explosion by disconnecting natural gas pipes and igniting the gas. Perkins received 28 convictions stemming from the jury’s finding that he intentionally caused the building explosion. The court sentenced him to 195 years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

On appeal, Perkins contended that the trial court erred by denying him a Shreck hearing to determine the reliability of the methodology underlying the fire investigators’ expert testimony. Perkins claimed that the fire investigators’ methodology was not reasonably reliable because it deviated from the standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in its NFPA 921, Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations, so the proffered testimony did not meet Shreck’s threshold reliability requirements. Colorado state and federal courts have recognized that NFPA 921 is an accepted reference for fire investigators. The court of appeals held that NFPA standards, and specifically NFPA 921, constitute a reliable basis for an expert’s opinion under Shreck. The court further held that strict compliance with NFPA 921 is not required for an expert’s testimony to be admissible under CRE 702, and that deviations from NFPA 921 go to the weight of the expert’s opinion and not the opinion’s admissibility. Here, the fire investigators’ methodology was reliable because they used NFPA 921 to guide their investigation even though they did not strictly adhere to every step in NFPA 921, and their testimony was relevant. Accordingly, the court properly found that even under a Shreck analysis a hearing was not required because the prosecution’s information showed that the experts were qualified to opine on the subject and used reasonably reliable techniques during their investigation, and their information would clearly be useful to the jury.

Perkins also claimed that the trial court erred in denying him a Shreck hearing because it failed to make sufficient reliability findings concerning the fire investigators’ opinion testimony. He maintained that the court relied on the fire investigators’ credentials rather than the principles underlying their methodology when it determined such methodology was reasonably reliable. However, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by determining that it had sufficient information to make reliability findings without holding an evidentiary hearing because it received a detailed synopsis of the proposed expert testimony; the experts’ curricula vitae; and the evidence relating to fire origin and cause, which was of the type previously accepted as reliable evidence in Colorado state and federal courts.

The judgment was affirmed.

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

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