Denver Bar Association
December 2012
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Court of Appeals Weighs Right to Demand a Trial

by Scott Challinor

I

 

n an unpublished opinion issued earlier this year, the Colorado Court of Appeals addressed an important and heretofore undecided point of constitutional law under the Sixth Amendment. Specifically, the court of appeals was asked to answer the question of whether the Constitution provides a right to a trial. Because the answer might seem obvious at first blush, further clarification is in order. Specifically, the court of appeals was asked to settle the long simmering debate as to whether the Sixth Amendment grants a constitutional right to a trial, even in the absence of criminal charges. 

In other words, does the Sixth Amendment provide citizens the right to demand a trial?

The facts underlying the decision (case number 11CA0495) are as follows: The appellant, self-identified in his pleadings as "Unknown, Tim," had been arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, specifically, "obstructing a peace officer." The prosecution dropped the charges against him, and accordingly, Judge Charles T. Hoppin of the Jefferson County Court dismissed the case.

Believing that this infringed on his constitutional right to a trial, the appellant sued the county court, seeking an order to compel prosecution and reinstate the charges against him. The case eventually made its way to the court of appeals following what was described as "multiple motions, civil complaints, and appeals of those complaints, each seeking to reinstate the charge or to compel the People to prosecute him or, as he now puts it, to afford him his ‘right’ to a trial."

On appeal, the appellant attributed his lack of legal authority to the fact that he "discovered" the right to a trial—absent criminal prosecution—before anyone else. In overcoming this argument, the court of appeals cited the following text from the Sixth Amendment: "In all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial." Employing a technical reading of this language, the court went on to note that, "Here, there is no criminal prosecution and [the appellant] is not ‘accused.’" The appeal was, therefore, dismissed for failing to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

Having answered the question in the negative, the court of appeals’ decision will have an immediate and far reaching impact on countless bored, innocent, law-abiding citizens who may have sought a novel diversion through the courts to occupy their free time.

The Docket will continue to follow this case as it develops and works its way through the court system, including any possible appeals to federal courts. In the meantime, if you anticipated occupying free time through the exercise of your constitutional right to a trial absent criminal charges, alternate diversions are recommended. D

 

Scott Challinor is an attorney with Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP who specializes in ERISA and tax law. He may be reached at scott.challinor@dgslaw.com.


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