Free Consultation 970-482-4710

Conviction for burglary tool possession reversed due to jury instruction

Under the federal Constitution, the prosecution must establish each element of a charged crime beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict an individual. If the prosecution fails in this task, a conviction may be reversed.

The Colorado Court of Appeals case of People v. Ridgeway provides a demonstration of this concept.

Defendant acquitted of all charges . . . except one

The defendant was a passenger in a jeep that was pulled over by police for turning without signaling. A search of the vehicle revealed various items seemingly related to the burglary of a check cashing business earlier that morning.

The defendant was charged with second-degree burglary, theft of less than $500, and possession of burglary tools. At trial, the driver of the Jeep testified that he and the defendant had broken into the cash checking business.

The jury acquitted the defendant of the burglary and theft charges, under the defense theory that the defendant was only circumstantially in the Jeep and was not involved in the burglary. However, the defendant was still convicted of possession of burglary tools.

The defendant argued that the trial court had erred in failing to give the jury proper instructions on the elements of the crime. On that basis, he appealed his conviction.

A flawed instruction to the jury

On appeal, the Colorado Court of Appeals explained that the crime of possession of burglary tools under Colorado law is not a “strict liability” offense-that is, the simple act of having the tools is not enough. A conviction requires proof of both an act and a mental state. Specifically, to violate the law and possess burglary tools, a person must both possess the burglary tool and also intend to use the tools in the commission of a burglary.

The defendant had requested a jury instruction explaining these elements of the crime, but the request was rejected, and the trial court used a different instruction. In that instruction, the trial court did not specify an intent to use “in the commission of such an offense.” As a result, the defendant could have been convicted based on possession of the tools with an intent to use them for any purpose-even a legal or innocuous purpose.

Therefore, the jury instruction was constitutionally deficient and was not harmless. His acquittal on all other charges indicated that the jury convicted him without finding he also had the intent to commit a burglary. The defendant’s conviction was thus reversed.

Fighting for your rights

If you are accused of a crime, you should seek out an attorney who will fight to protect your rights beginning at the arrest stage and will continue to fight if the case proceeds to trial. Retain a lawyer who is not afraid of taking your case to court, if necessary, to protect your freedom and reputation.