Wells-Yates v. The People




Colorado Supreme Court

Citation and Year

2019 CO 90M (2019)

Constitutional Provision or State Statute

Colo. Const. art. II, §20 (“cruel and unusual punishments”)

Nature of Case

Petitioner Wells-Yates was sentenced as a “habitual criminal” based on predicate — i.e., previous — offenses that Colorado later prospectively reclassified as less severe with reduced penalties. Thus, “had Wells-Yates committed the triggering offense of possession with intent on or after October 1, 2013, instead of in 2012, she would have faced a prison sentence of 2 to 4 years, not a mandatory habitual criminal sentence of 64 years.” Are these prospective reforms relevant to the constitutional question of whether Wells-Yates’ habitual offender sentence is proportional?


On proportionality review of an habitual offender sentence, courts must consider any subsequent legislative sentencing reforms while assessing the seriousness of the offense, even if the reforms do not apply retroactively. In other words, it is relevant if a certain offense is now regarded as less serious than it once was, as evidenced by sentencing reform. In the habitual offender context, this applies to both “triggering” and “predicate offenses.” The court remanded for the trial court to conduct the appropriate proportionality review.


While this holding applies to whether a sentence is “proportionate,” the court invoked the “evolving standards of decency” to support its holding: “the division [court] should have considered the statutory amendments in question as objective indicia of the evolving standards of decency to determine the gravity or seriousness of the triggering offense of possession with intent and of the three predicate offenses.” The court also “cautioned that the Habitual Criminal Act create[s] a unique possibility” of yielding a disproportionate sentence.