What do I do if I have been charged with a crime: guidance on three common charges in Colorado

Being charged with a crime can seem overwhelming, daunting, and most of all, scary. If the state of Colorado decides to prosecute you, you will have to make several court appearances, and it may be difficult to know what to do, especially when the laws can be convoluted and confusing. Depending on the charges you are facing, sentences can range from probation to years in prison and it can be difficult to navigate the potential consequences of plea deals and trial on your own. This post touches on three common types of criminal cases in Colorado: Assault, Driving Under the Influence (“DUI”), and Domestic Violence. If you have been charged with a crime, you should contact an attorney immediately to understand your rights.

First, it is important to understand the different classes of criminal charges that the government can bring. Colorado splits offenses into three categories: Petty Offenses, Misdemeanors (Class I, II, III), and Felonies (Class I-VI). A felony is the most severe, meaning that, if convicted, sentences can range from one year to decades in prison. Misdemeanors are less severe than felonies, but if convicted, sentences can still reach up to two years in the county jail. Finally, petty offenses carry the lowest possible sentences. Understanding the “class” your charge falls under is one of the first steps in understanding the charge and the potential sentence that could be imposed.

ASSAULT

We are all generally familiar with the term “assault”, however, in Colorado, it is a charge that encompasses a wide variety of conduct and can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony depending on the facts. Colorado law splits assaults into three separate categories: First, Second, and Third Degree. First and Second Degree Assault are both felony offenses and can carry potential sentences to prison. Third Degree Assault is a misdemeanor with a potential sentence to the county jail. Therefore, in the case of any assault, the potential impact can be great, and each case should be taken seriously.

The crime of assault involves injury to another person. Third Degree Assault requires that a person knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury to another (this is a lower burden than a person “intending” something to happen)[1]. An everyday example of this is when one person punches another and causes an injury. If the circumstances are any more serious than that – meaning a deadly weapon was used, or the person suffered a broken bone, etc. – the conduct may support a felony charge. Generally speaking, the seriousness of the assault charge depends on the intent of the actor and the extent of the injury to the person claiming to have been assaulted.

Assault is broad and covers a wide range of conduct and circumstances; not surprisingly, it usually comes with a complex set of background facts. Simply being charged with assault does not necessarily mean it is the end of the road. Each unique set of facts shapes the case: it may be unclear how the assault started, who started it, whether you were acting in self-defense, and whether there was even an altercation at all. Finding a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney is critical to fully understand how assault laws apply to a particular set of circumstances.

DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Colorado has some of the strictest drinking and driving laws in the country. In Colorado, if you have a blood alcohol content (“BAC”) at or above .05 you can be arrested and charged with drinking and driving (depending on your weight, this might mean even one drink can put you over the legal limit). The charge of Driving Under the Influence isn’t just limited to alcohol; it extends to any impairing substance. That means that even though marijuana is now legal, you can be prosecuted for driving while high, and you can even be prosecuted in some circumstances if you are driving under the influence of prescription drugs. Understanding what constitutes driving under the influence is the first step in understanding what you are being charged with.

Driving Under the Influence (commonly referred to as “DUI”) is what most people are familiar with. Pursuant to Colorado law, a charge of DUI means that, after consuming alcohol or taking drugs, or both, you were “substantially incapable, either mentally or physically, or both mentally and physically, to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control, or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle.”[2] In Colorado, sometimes a DUI can be referred to as a DUI-D (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs). For DUI-D, the standard of impairment is the same as with DUI, but DUI-D simply identifies the impairing substance as a drug rather than alcohol. Finally, in Colorado, you can also be charged with a lesser crime of Driving While Ability Impaired (“DWAI”) if you consumed alcohol or drugs and were affected “to the slightest degree” so that you are less able to exercise clear judgment, sufficient physical control, or due care in the safe operation of a vehicle than you ordinarily would have been.[3]

If you have been arrested for impaired driving, Colorado has a law commonly referred to as the Colorado Express Consent law. By driving in Colorado, each driver has already consented to a chemical test (usually breath or blood) to determine their BAC. The law requires that the driver be advised about the available tests and choose to either take a chemical test or refuse. If you refuse to take a chemical test after being arrested for DUI or DWAI, this can result in negative consequences both during your criminal trial and in the state’s action to revoke your license.

Being convicted of a DUI, DUI-D or DWAI can carry significant costs, can impact your ability to drive, and can carry serious sentences if convicted. Specifically, sentences may include jail, probation, community service, and a significant fine. Factors impacting the potential sentence in any given case include whether or not the person convicted had any other prior DUI/DWAI convictions, the BAC in the particular case, and other case-specific factors. For those drivers with three prior DUI convictions, Colorado has also enacted a Felony DUI offense that carries the potential punishment of multiple years in prison. Colorado prosecutes driving under the influence aggressively, so it is important to have an experienced DUI attorney who understands the legal landscape. If you’ve been charged with DUI, DUI-D, or DWAI, don’t wait to seek the advice of a lawyer.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Like many phrases that are echoed throughout the media and on the street, the term “domestic violence” evokes a somewhat specific picture: generally, it is a spouse who has committed some act of physical violence against his partner. Partly due to this narrow picture of what it means either to have “committed domestic violence” or be “charged with domestic violence,” many people don’t have an accurate understanding of Colorado’s law on the topic. If you are facing a charge that alleges domestic violence, it is important to understand what the term encompasses in Colorado.

There are a few common misconceptions about domestic violence that arise again and again: (1) domestic violence is a separate crime; (2) domestic violence means the people involved have to be in a romantic or sexual relationship; (3) domestic violence requires that the victim was physically harmed; (4) domestic violence requires a violent act. All of these commonly held beliefs are wrong and demonstrate the narrow, and all too common, misunderstanding of how Colorado defines domestic violence.

Contrary to the first misconception, domestic violence is what is more accurately called a sentence enhancer; it is not a separate crime. Domestic violence allegations can be included in a case where the defendant and the victim are in an “intimate relationship.” Contrary to the second misconception, an “intimate relationship” does not mean the two people must be romantically or sexually involved. Under Colorado law, an “intimate relationship” is “a relationship between spouses, former spouses, past or present unmarried couples, or persons who are both the parents of the same child, regardless of whether the persons have been married or have lived together at any time.”[4] Contrary to the third and fourth misconceptions, domestic violence includes an extremely large purview of behavior. Unsurprisingly, the definition of domestic violence includes acts or threatened acts of violence. However, it also includes any other crime “when used as a method of coercion, control, punishment, intimidation, or revenge” directed against a person the actor is, or has been, in an intimate relationship with.[5] For example, domestic violence may have been properly alleged in cases where a person’s property has been damaged, stalking, or telephone harassment.

Cases involving domestic violence have another immediate and profound impact on the lives of those involved. The first time you appear in court, the judge is typically required to impose a “mandatory protection order” that can prohibit, or significantly limit, contact between you and the named victim. Depending on the facts of the case, this order can limit your ability to see your child or enter your own home. Therefore, understanding the scope of the protection order and following it is very important, especially because a violation of that order can result in even more criminal charges. An experienced domestic violence attorney can help you understand the potential impacts of a domestic violence allegation and any protection order. An attorney may also be able to seek modification of the protection order for you while you go through the legal process of navigating your criminal charges.

As this post suggests, Colorado law can be complicated and complex, sometimes leaving the person accused guessing as to what needs to be done or how to do it. A criminal defense attorney with experience handling a wide variety of criminal charges can help you understand the process, advocate for your interests, and get you the best possible outcome. If you’re facing criminal allegations, don’t hesitate to consult with an attorney about your situation.


Sources:
[1] Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 18-3-204(1)(a)
[2] Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-4-1301(1)(f).
[3]Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 42-4-1301(1)(g).
[4]Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 18-6-800.3
[5] Id.