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Colorado’s organized crime law requires a criminal enterprise to have some ongoing structure beyond the fact that individuals committed crimes together, the state Supreme Court clarified on Monday.

The Court’s interpretation of an enterprise under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act now aligns state law with the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. In reaching its conclusion, the justices acknowledged that a Douglas County judge failed to properly instruct a jury on the definition of a criminal enterprise. Consequently, the Court granted a new trial to a man serving a nearly 100-year sentence on a botched 2015 robbery.

Not implementing a more precise threshold for criminal enterprises, Justice William W. Hood III wrote for the Court, “would mean greenlighting COCCA prosecutions of unorganized crime without boosting the state’s ability to combat organized crime.”

In the case at hand, Marquis DeShawn McDonald and others stole a minivan and drove to Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree with the intention of stealing expensive watches. Once inside the jewelry store, McDonald smashed a display case with a hammer. He and an associate grabbed several Rolex watches and fled, only to find out the getaway van was not where they thought it would be.

Police arrested the group and prosecutors charged McDonald with five criminal counts, including the offense of engaging in a pattern of racketeering activity in connection with an enterprise.

Under the law, racketeering activity refers to a conspiracy or attempt to induce another person to commit certain crimes, including murder, kidnaping or robbery. The motor vehicle theft and property damage in the store qualified as eligible offenses in McDonald's case. For there to be a pattern, there must be at least two acts of racketeering that are related to the criminal enterprise.

McDonald’s defense lawyer argued at trial that the perpetrators were not an organization, but rather people who “got together and did something stupid.” McDonald asked for the trial judge to define an enterprise as the RICO law does, using three elements: a group with a common purpose, an organization and “personnel who function as a continuing unit.” District Court Judge David Stevens rejected that proposal, and instead told the jury merely that it was a group of individuals who were "associated in fact."

Jurors convicted McDonald on all charges and he received a 96-year sentence.

A panel of the Court of Appeals upheld McDonald’s convictions last year by a 2-1 decision. The majority opinion concluded the General Assembly had declined to modify the state’s definition of an enterprise on its own, and so there was no need for the court to link it to the RICO definition.

Judge Michael H. Berger disagreed, saying the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of an enterprise under federal law would help to “distinguish an impulsive, run-of-the-mill crime from criminal liability.” That definition, similar to the one McDonald offered at his trial, requires criminal enterprises to have a purpose, relationships among those involved and sufficient longevity to pursue the group’s goals.

“Without further definition,” Berger elaborated, “I don’t know what ‘associated in fact’ means, and I think it is presumptuous to assume that lay jurors are able to meaningfully understand and then apply that undefined term.”

Hood, in the Court's Sept. 13 opinion, examined the legislature's intent in enacting the state's organized crime law. The General Assembly declared in part that organized crime is highly sophisticated, uses its power to infiltrate and corrupt other legitimate entities, and impedes "free competition."

It was difficult, Hood wrote, to see how using COCCA to prosecute crimes committed by any two people who happen to be cooperating could satisfy the legislature's goal, unless those people were part of an actual organization with a purpose.

Therefore, the Court determined it would follow the U.S. Supreme Court's directive in the 2009 case of Boyle v. United States that "the enterprise’s existence is a separate element that must be proved," and not something that is established on the criminal conduct alone.

The Court ordered a new trial for McDonald on just the racketeering charge, finding that double jeopardy did not prevent a second prosecution.

The case is McDonald v. People.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the new trial will only apply to the racketeering offense.

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