When Statutes Collide

Colorado Supreme Court to decide when statutory amendments should apply retroactively

The torch has passed to the Colorado Supreme Court to settle an apparent conflict in both case law and statute about the question of whether a statutory amendment applies only prospectively or also retroactively to pending cases if the statute does not state a clear intent in either direction.

Appeals in two separate cases, People v. Stellabotte and People v. Patton turn on a 2013 change in state law that downgraded theft between $5,000 and $20,000 from a Class 4 to a Class 5 felony. The defendants in each case, one involving vehicles and the other unauthorized debit card use, committed the crimes before the statutory change but were sentenced after the change, according the charges’ prior classification as a Class 4 felony. In each case, the Court of Appeals ruled the defendants should benefit from the change and receive shorter sentences accordingly.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin McReynolds argued both cases for the state. His reasoning for reversing the Court of Appeals rulings centered on legislative intent, arguing the Colorado Constitution and several decades of case law support prospective application of statutes.

Article 5, Section 19 of the state Constitution says new legislation enacted will take effect either on its stated date or when it is passed if the act doesn’t include an effective date. In addition, 2-4-202 of the Colorado Revised Statutes says “a statute is presumed to be prospective in its operation.” And finally, C.R.S. 2-4-303 states an amendment to a statute won’t apply retroactively to change civil or criminal penalties imposed unless the amendment explicitly states it does.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the April 16, 2017 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.