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People v. Wells-Yates.

2023 COA 120. No. 21CA1147. Sentencing—Punishment for Habitual Criminals—Abbreviated Proportionality Review—Extended Proportionality Review—Gravity or Seriousness of Offenses.

December 14, 2023

Wells-Yates was convicted of second-degree burglary of a dwelling, conspiracy to commit second-degree burglary of a dwelling, theft, possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, and four counts of identity theft. All but the possession with intent and one count of identity theft stemmed from Wells-Yates’s burglary of a home that had been evacuated due to the approaching Waldo Canyon wildfire. The fourth identity theft count arose from Wells-Yates’s sale of a stolen birth certificate, social security card, and driver’s license to an undercover officer. Wells-Yates was adjudicated a habitual criminal based on three prior felony convictions: one conviction for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and two convictions for possession of methamphetamine. The habitual criminal adjudication resulted in the court sentencing Wells-Yates to 64 years for possession with intent, 48 years for second-degree burglary, and 24 years for each of the other counts. The sentences for second-degree burglary and the fourth identity theft count were ordered to run consecutively, with all other sentences running concurrently. The case ultimately went before the Colorado Supreme Court, which remanded it to the district court to conduct a new proportionality review. On remand, the district court held an evidentiary hearing and issued a written order, concluding, as it had previously, that none of the sentences created an inference of gross disproportionality. At the hearing, over Wells-Yates’s objection, the district court admitted and considered arrest warrant affidavits for Wells-Yates’s predicate convictions.

On appeal, the court of appeals first concluded that the district court complied with the Supreme Court’s mandate. Wells-Yates argued that each of her sentences raises an inference of gross disproportionality and thus requires an extended proportionality review. When a defendant challenges sentence proportionality, the court must first conduct an abbreviated proportionality review to consider the triggering and the predicate offenses together to determine whether, in combination, they so lack gravity or seriousness as to raise an inference that the sentence imposed on that triggering offense is grossly disproportionate. If the inference is raised, the court must conduct an extended proportionality review. In conducting an abbreviated proportionality review of a habitual criminal sentence, the court must consider (1) the gravity or seriousness of all the offenses in question (triggering and predicate offenses), and (2) the harshness of the sentence on the triggering offense. A district court has discretion to determine what evidence it considers in assessing the facts and circumstances of a predicate offense and that arrest warrant affidavits may serve as one such type of evidence. The court’s purpose is to assess the gravity or seriousness of the offense of conviction, so while the court may look beyond the elements of that offense to the facts and circumstances of the offense as committed, those facts may not substitute for consideration of the predicate offense itself.

In this case, each of Wells-Yates’s sentences is based on the same predicate offenses: one for possession with intent to sell or distribute methamphetamine and two for simple possession of methamphetamine. None of these offenses is per se grave or serious, and the two possession convictions are not especially grave or serious; those offenses, which were class 4 felonies at the time of conviction, have been reclassified as a level 1 drug misdemeanor (less than 4 grams) and a level 4 drug felony (more than 4 grams) with substantially reduced sentencing ranges. Wells-Yates’s prior conviction for possession with intent to sell or distribute is more serious, but that offense classification has also been reduced from an extraordinary risk class 3 felony to a level 3 drug felony that is not considered an extraordinary risk crime and has less severe penalties. And the volume of Wells-Yates’s distribution was small, with each offense involving one or two transactions between $90 and $350. Accordingly, Wells-Yates’s 64-year habitual criminal sentence for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine raises an inference of gross disproportionality. However, Wells-Yates’s other sentences do not raise that inference.

Lastly, the court declined Wells-Yates’s request to declare a categorical rule that quadrupling the sentence for an offense based solely on prior drug possession convictions is per se unconstitutional.

The 64-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine was reversed and the case was remanded for the district court to conduct an extended proportionality review of that sentence. The remaining sentences were affirmed.

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

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