Ewing v. California

538 U.S. 11 (2003)


Between 1993 and 1995, 24 States and the Federal Government enacted three strikes laws. Though the three strikes laws vary from State to State, they share a common goal of protecting the public safety by providing lengthy prison terms for habitual felons. When a defendant is convicted of a felony, and he has previously been convicted of one or more prior felonies defined as 'serious' or 'violent,' sentencing is conducted pursuant to the three strikes law. Prior convictions must be alleged in the charging document, and the defendant has a right to a jury determination that the prosecution has proved the prior convictions beyond a reasonable doubt. If the defendant has one prior 'serious' or 'violent' felony conviction, he must be sentenced to 'twice the term otherwise provided as punishment for the current felony conviction.' If the defendant has two or more prior 'serious' or 'violent' felony convictions, he must receive 'an indeterminate term of life imprisonment.' Defendants sentenced to life under the three strikes law become eligible for parole on a date calculated by reference to a 'minimum term,' which is the greater of (a) three times the term otherwise provided for the current conviction, (b) 25 years, or (c) the term determined by the court pursuant to §1170 for the underlying conviction, including any enhancements. Certain offenses may be classified as either felonies or misdemeanors. These crimes are known as 'wobblers.' Some crimes that would otherwise be misdemeanors become 'wobblers' because of the defendant's prior record. A petty theft, a misdemeanor, becomes a 'wobbler' when the defendant has previously served a prison term for committing specified theft-related crimes. Other crimes, such as grand theft, are 'wobblers' regardless of the defendant's prior record. Both types of 'wobblers' are triggering offenses under the three strikes law only when they are treated as felonies. Under California law, a 'wobbler' is presumptively a felony and 'remains a felony except when the discretion is actually exercised' to make the crime a misdemeanor. Prosecutors may exercise their discretion to charge a 'wobbler' as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Likewise, California trial courts have discretion to reduce a 'wobbler' charged as a felony to a misdemeanor either before preliminary examination or at sentencing to avoid imposing a three strikes sentence. In exercising this discretion, the court may consider 'those factors that direct similar sentencing decisions,' such as 'the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant's appreciation of and attitude toward the offense, . . . [and] the general objectives of sentencing.' California trial courts can also vacate allegations of prior 'serious' or 'violent' felony convictions, either on motion by the prosecution or sua sponte. In ruling whether to vacate allegations of prior felony convictions, courts consider whether, 'in light of the nature and circumstances of [the defendant's] present felonies and prior serious and/or violent felony convictions, and the particulars of his background, character, and prospects, the defendant may be deemed outside the [three strikes'] scheme's spirit, in whole or in part.' Trial courts may avoid imposing a three strikes sentence in two ways: first, by reducing 'wobblers' to misdemeanors (which do not qualify as triggering offenses), and second, by vacating allegations of prior 'serious' or 'violent' felony convictions.

Ewing (D) was on parole from a 9-year prison term. D walked into a golf pro shop and walked out with three golf clubs, priced at $399 apiece, concealed in his pants leg. The police apprehended D in the parking lot. From 1984 until 1993 D was virtually a one-man crime spree. (This author counted 14 offenses he was prosecuted for and notes that D was increasingly more dangerous and violent as time went on.) For the stolen golf clubs, he was charged with, and ultimately convicted of, one count of felony grand theft of personal property in excess of $400. The prosecutor formally alleged, and the trial court later found, that D had been convicted previously of four serious or violent felonies for the three burglaries and the robbery in the Long Beach apartment complex. D asked the court to reduce the conviction for grand theft, a 'wobbler' under California law, to a misdemeanor so as to avoid a three strikes sentence. Ewing also asked the trial court to exercise its discretion to dismiss the allegations of some or all of his prior serious or violent felony convictions, again for purposes of avoiding a three strikes sentence. The trial court took note of his entire criminal history, including the fact that he was on parole when he committed his latest offense. The court also heard arguments from defense counsel and a plea from D himself. D was sentenced under the three strikes law to 25 years to life. The California Court of Appeal affirmed. Relying on Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U. S. 263 (1980), the court rejected D's claim that his sentence was grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment. Enhanced sentences under recidivist statutes like the three strikes law, the court reasoned, serve the 'legitimate goal' of deterring and incapacitating repeat offenders. The Supreme Court of California denied D's petition for review.