Three Strikes Law: California’s “Three Strikes” law applies to a criminal defendant who is currently charged and convicted of a felony and who has previously been convicted of one or more serious or violent felonies. One aspect of the law that has proven controversial is that the lengthy punishment prescribed by the law may be imposed not only when such a defendant is convicted of another serious or violent felony but also when he or she is convicted of any offense that is categorized under California law as a felony. This is so even when the current, so-called triggering, offense is nonviolent and may be widely perceived as relatively minor. (Pen. Code, §§ 667, subd. (c), 1170.12, subd. (a); see, e.g., People v. Carmony (2004) 33 Cal.4th 367, 381 (conc. opn. of Moreno, J., joined by Chin, J.) (Carmony I); Vitiello, California’s Three Strikes and We’re Out: Was Judicial Activism California’s Best Hope? (2004) 37 U.C. Davis L.Rev. 1025, 1026 [“Widely reported Three Strikes cases have involved trivial offenses — such as the theft of a bicycle, a slice of pizza, cookies or a bottle of vitamins — that have resulted in severe sentences”].)
Shortly after the Three Strikes law was enacted, a number of federal appellate decisions held that the 25-year-to-life minimum sentence mandated by the law for a third-strike felony conviction constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the federal Constitution when imposed upon a defendant whose current felony offense was a comparatively minor, nonviolent offense. (See, e.g., Andrade v. Attorney General of State of California (9th Cir. 2001) 270 F.3d 743; Brown v. Mayle (9th Cir. 2002) 283 F.3d 1019.) The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in each of those cases, however, and in a related case, Ewing v. California (2003) 538 U.S. 11 (Ewing), the federal high court addressed a cruel and unusual punishment challenge to the imposition of a sentence of 25 years to life under California’s Three Strikes law upon a defendant whose triggering offense was the nonviolent theft of three golf clubs worth a total of $1,200. In Ewing, the high court concluded, in a five-to-four decision, that, in light of the antirecidivist purpose of the Three Strikes law and the defendant’s criminal history, the sentence imposed upon the defendant in that case was not unconstitutional. The lead opinion in Ewing (authored by Justice O’Connor), however, did not eliminate the possibility that some triggering offense, although designated a felony under California law, might be so minor and unrelated to the goal of deterring recidivism that a 25-year-to-life sentence would be “grossly disproportionate” and constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, even when imposed upon a defendant with a serious criminal record.
Subsequently, in People v. Carmony (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 1066 (Carmony II), a panel of the California Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, concluded in a two-to-one decision that a 25-year-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law constituted cruel and/or unusual punishment, in violation of the federal and state Constitutions, as applied to a defendant whose triggering offense was the failure to annually update his sex offender registration within five working days of his birthday. The defendant in Carmony II had properly registered as a sex offender at his current address one month before his birthday, had continued to reside at the same address throughout the relevant period, had remained in contact with his parole agent, and was arrested at that same address by his parole agent one month after his birthday. Observing that “because defendant did not evade or intend to evade law enforcement officers, his offense was the most technical and harmless violation of the registration law we have seen” (127 Cal.App.4th at p. 1078), the majority opinion in Carmony II concluded that, notwithstanding the defendant’s record of serious prior offenses, the imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s offenses and violated the constitutional prohibition of cruel and/or unusual punishment. Thereafter, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, addressing a cruel and unusual punishment claim in a factual setting very similar to that presented in Carmony II, reached the same conclusion as the California appellate court in Carmony II. (Gonzalez v. Duncan (9th Cir. 2008) 551 F.3d 875.)
In the present habeas corpus proceeding, a panel of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Five, considering the constitutionality of a 25-year-to-life sentence imposed upon a defendant who also was convicted of failing to update his sex offender registration within five working days of his birthday, expressly disagreed with the analysis and conclusion of the appellate court in Carmony II and held that the punishment was constitutionally permissible. In light of the conflict in the two Court of Appeal decisions, we granted review.
We agree with the Court of Appeal in the present case that imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence upon petitioner in this matter does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the federal Constitution, but, for the reasons discussed more fully hereafter, we conclude that we need not and should not rest our holding upon a determination that the Court of Appeal opinion in Carmony II was wrongly decided. The conduct of petitioner in this case, as found by the trial court, is clearly distinguishable in a significant respect from the conduct of the defendant in Carmony II. Unlike the defendant in Carmony II, who had very recently registered at his current address and who the Court of Appeal found “did not evade or intend to evade law enforcement officers” (Carmony II, supra, 127 Cal.App.4th at p. 1078), the trial court in this case, in refusing to strike any of petitioner’s prior convictions and in imposing a 25-year-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law, found that petitioner’s triggering offense was not simply a minor or technical oversight by a defendant who had made a good faith effort to comply with the sex offender registration law. Rather, the court found that petitioner had never registered as a sex offender at his current address and had knowingly and intentionally refused to comply with his obligations under the sex offender registration law.
Petitioner’s conduct, as found by the trial court, demonstrated that, despite the significant punishment petitioner had incurred as a result of his prior serious offenses, he was still intentionally unwilling to comply with an important legal obligation, and thus his triggering criminal conduct bore both a rational and substantial relationship to the antirecidivist purposes of the Three Strikes law. Given that relationship and the extremely serious and heinous nature of petitioner’s prior criminal history, we conclude that, under Ewing, supra, 538 U.S. 11, the imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the circumstances of this case. In light of the facts underlying the offense in this case as found by the trial court, we need not decide whether the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law in a factual situation like that in Carmony II, in which a defendant had properly registered his current residential address and demonstrated a good faith attempt to comply with the sex offender registration law but due to a negligent oversight had failed to update his registration within five working days of his birthday (Cal. S. Ct., S185303, 30.08.12, In re Coley).