High Court Upholds California’s Three-Strikes Law

By ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press
Published 03/0503 08:00:00

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld long sentences meted out under the nation’s toughest three-time offender law, ruling that a prison term of 25 years to life is not too harsh for a small-time thief who shoplifted golf clubs.

California’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out law does not lead to unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, even though a relatively minor crime can yield a life term if the criminal has a felony record.

Twenty-six states and the federal government have some version of a three-strikes law, which typically allow a life prison term or something close to it for a person convicted of a third felony.

Wednesday’s ruling addressed only the effects of the California law. But the high court’s reasoning will likely shield other three-strikes laws from similar constitutional challenges.

The court majority noted the popularity of such laws and the public fears behind them. State legislatures should have leeway to keep career criminals away from the public, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority.

“When the California legislature enacted the three-strikes law, it made a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime,” O’Connor wrote.

The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment does not prohibit California from making that choice, she wrote.

O’Connor was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed with the outcome.

In dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer said the case of Gary Albert Ewing is a rare example of a sentence that is so out of proportion to the crime that it is unconstitutional.

The sentence means Ewing, an AIDS patient, would serve at least 25 years in prison without possibility of parole, Breyer noted on behalf of himself and Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Outside California, a 25-year prison term is more the norm for someone convicted of first-degree murder, not shoplifting, Breyer wrote.

“Ewing’s sentence is, at a minimum, two to three times the length of sentences that other jurisdictions would impose in similar circumstances,” he wrote.

Breyer read a summary of his dissent from the bench, a step justices usually reserve for cases in which there is strong, often ideological, disagreement.

The same lineup of justices also acted in another case, a widely noted appeal in which a small-time burglar was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison for stealing videos from K-Mart.

The court reversed a federal appeals court ruling which had found Leandro Andrade’s sentence unconstitutional.

California’s law was adopted by referendum in 1994, largely in response to the murder of schoolgirl Polly Klass by a repeat criminal who was out on parole.

Three-strikes laws in other states and the federal government were also passed in the 1990s, when the spread of crack cocaine fed public fears about rising violent crime.

Supporters of the laws say they keep habitual criminals off the streets and serve as a deterrent for criminals who already have one or two felonies on their record.

Critics say the laws are too harsh and inflexible in general, and particularly so in California.

The California law requires a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for any felony conviction if the criminal was previously convicted of two serious or violent felonies. It also permits judges to treat as felonies a third offense that would otherwise be a misdemeanor.

In practice, the California law has often meant harsh prison terms for people like Ewing and Andrade.

A clerk in an El Segundo, Calif., pro shop noticed Ewing trying to make off with the $399 clubs shoved down one pants leg.

Ewing had four prior convictions for robbery and burglary. Although prosecutors could have charged him with a misdemeanor in the golf club case, they chose to charge him with a felony under the state’s three-strikes law.

Andrade’s “third strike” was a 1995 charge for twice shoving children’s videos down his pants and walking out of Southern California K-Mart stores. The tapes, including “Batman Forever” and “Cinderella,” were worth $153.

Andrade was eligible for extra punishment under the three-strikes law because he had a history of burglaries. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life, with no possibility of parole until 2046, when Andrade would be 87.

The cases are Lockyer v. Andrade, 01-1127, and Ewing v. California, 01-6978.