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Judge Matthew D. Grove speaks with Morgan Rasmussen and Brisais Vargas, 17-year-old juniors. STRIVE Prep — RISE school in Green Valley Ranch hosted a Courts in the Community event, featuring oral arguments before a three-judge panel with the Colorado Court of Appeals on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Photo by Steve Peterson

The state's second-highest court issued a pair of noteworthy decisions last week: One involving a golf course injury and the other delving into a trespassing incident in subfreezing temperatures.

But what distinguished these cases from the 2,000 others filed with the Court of Appeals each year was the fact that a few dozen high school students had thoughts to share about the outcome.

"Before breaking in, if he knew it was incorrect to do so, his first instinct should have potentially been trying to look for another solution instead," said Oscar Hernandez-Ruiz of STRIVE Prep — RISE charter school in Denver.

Last month, as part of the judicial branch's Courts in the Community program, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals visited STRIVE Prep — RISE in the Green Valley Ranch section of the city. The panel held oral arguments in two real cases, after which the judges and attorneys involved answered students' questions.

"I know you were struggling with the case just now," Eliud Jimenez said. "I know it can be frustrating. My question is: How do you guys keep your cool? How do you stay calm?"

"Some of us are better than others," Judge Ted C. Tow III responded.

After the panel released its decisions on Thursday, the students in Ross Gothelf's 11th grade civics and economics "Life 101" course discussed in particular detail what transpired in the Arapahoe County case of People v. Chapel.

A jury found David Joseph Chapel guilty of trespassing after he tried to seek warmth early one March morning in 2019. Chapel had attended a house party in his neighborhood, where he fell asleep on a couch after drinking. Around 4 a.m., he awoke to a loud noise and saw people running out of the home.

He followed others outside, where the temperature was around zero degrees. By himself in the snow, Chapel tried unsuccessfully to enter a nearby home. Chapel hopped a fence and pushed open the door to a basement garage at another house. He fell asleep inside, but awoke in extreme pain from the cold.

Chapel entered the apartment unit and encountered the occupants. They allowed him to warm himself on a stove and then asked him to leave, which he did. Police later arrested him.

The primary issue in Chapel's appeal was the trial court judge's decision not to allow him to raise a "choice of evils" defense to the jury. Such a defense allows a person to justify illegal conduct if it is necessary under emergency conditions to avoid an imminent injury. To be eligible to use a choice of evils defense, the defendant must have tried all other "potentially viable and reasonable alternatives."

During oral arguments, Chapel's attorney argued that it should have been up to the jury to decide whether his client's actions were reasonable.

"There was evidence he was in pain and couldn’t feel his fingers," said public defender Mark Evans. "Viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to him, that was enough to show he had to find shelter immediately at the first opportunity, which is what he did."

"It’s undisputed that his own residence was two blocks away from the neighborhood house party that he was at," countered Carson Schneider of the Colorado Attorney General's Office.

The appellate panel concluded that Chapel did not, in fact, deserve to use the choice of evils defense. While the judges were unwilling to endorse Schneider's contention that Chapel could simply have walked to his own home, they did find that Chapel had not exhausted his other alternatives before resorting to breaking in.

"Most obviously," wrote Judge Matthew D. Grove in the May 5 opinion, "Chapel could have knocked on either door in the hope that someone would either offer him shelter or call someone on his behalf."

The students who witnessed the arguments weighed in on whether they believed Chapel had other options. Their answers were largely in the affirmative, but with key qualifications.

"Yes, I do, especially because Mr. Chapel lived in the neighborhood. He could have found his way home, or asked for help to do so," said Nevaeh Reyes-Acevedo.

"Technically he did. However, when you are in that kind of scenario, freezing cold to the point where you are in excruciating pain, most people do not think straight," said Jay Hoelscher. "When someone is going through hypothermia, oftentimes they will be so cold they feel hot and start to take their clothes off, freezing to death in the process. So I think seeking warmth in the house was a completely reasonable decision."

Julianna Flores-Soto echoed that the conditions would not have been conducive to Chapel thinking clearly, so "I would have to agree to disagree."

In the second case, Hogan et al. v. City of Englewood, two women injured themselves on a city-owned golf course when their golf cart hit a tree stump obscured by tall grass. Although governmental immunity generally shields public entities from civil liability, Arapahoe County District Court Judge John E. Scipione concluded last year that "the undisputed facts" showed that the stump presented an unreasonable risk. Therefore, Englewood could be sued notwithstanding the governmental immunity law.

The panel reversed Scipione's decision largely because he had neglected to paint the full picture of the case and the facts he relied upon. Scipione had not, the panel noted, indicated whether the city knew a dangerous condition existed or whether Englewood caused the hazard.

"Relatedly, Englewood asserts that it is 'a near-universal truth' that golf carts must remain a certain distance from tee boxes and greens, that it has a written rule specifying that golf carts must not be driven on the grass within thirty feet of greens and tee boxes, and that these rules are communicated to golfers," wrote Judge David J. Richman. "But the district court made no findings on these assertions."

The panel sent the case back to Scipione to examine the issues more thoroughly. 

Gothelf, the civics teacher, said he asked his students whether the tree stump amounted to a dangerous condition under the law, and the majority believed it did not. Several students felt, he said, that "since the women did not follow the rules, the course/city should not be held responsible."

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