25 Years to Life in Prison for Petty Theft

In Ewing v. California (2003) 538 U.S. 11, the defendant was convicted of felony grand theft for stealing three golf clubs and was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison. (Ewing v. California, supra, 123 S. Ct. at p. 1184.)

The defendant had four prior strike convictions for burglary and robbery as well as numerous other convictions, and committed the current offense while on parole. Justice O'Connor, in her plurality opinion announcing the judgment of the Court, states the defendant's sentence was "justified by the State's public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons, and amply supported by the defendant's own long, serious criminal record." (Id. at p. 1190.)

The sentence "reflected a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies . . . and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated. The State of California 'was entitled to place upon the defendant the onus of one who is simply unable to bring his conduct within social norms prescribed by the criminal law of the State.' Ewing's is not 'the rare case in which a threshold comparison of the crime committed and the sentence imposed leads to an inference of gross disproportionality.' " (Ibid.)

In Lockyer v. Andrade (2003) 538 U.S. 63, the defendant was sentenced to two consecutive 25-years-to-life terms based on two convictions for petty theft with a prior ( § 666), which the prosecutor charged as a felony, for stealing videocassettes valued at less than $ 200. (Lockyer v. Andrade, supra, 123 S. Ct. at pp. 1169-1170.)

The defendant had suffered three strike convictions, each for first degree burglary. A five-justice majority upheld the sentence, concluding that "the gross disproportionality principle reserves a constitutional violation for only the extraordinary case." (Id. at p. 1175.)

In Lockyer v. Andrade (2003) the defendant had been sentenced by the superior court to two consecutive 25-years-to-life terms for two petty thefts, which were committed on consecutive days. The California Court of Appeal rejected the defendant's claim the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. (Id. at p. 1171.)

The California Supreme Court declined review. (Ibid.)

The federal district court denied Andrade's petition for writ of habeas corpus, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Andrade a certificate of appealability as to the Eighth Amendment issue.

The Ninth Circuit reviewed Andrade's claim under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), which provides that a writ of habeas corpus will not be granted by a federal court unless the state court's adjudication of the claim was " 'contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.' " (Andrade, supra, 123 S. Ct. at p. 1172 (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1)).)

The Ninth Circuit granted the writ reversing the state appellate court on grounds that the state's decision was irreconcilable with the Supreme Court's proportionality test in Solem v. Helm (1983) 463 U.S. 277 (Andrade, supra, 123 S. Ct. at p. 1171.)

The Supreme Court in Andrade examined its recent cases bearing on the question of the proportionality of a term of years sentence including: Rummel v. Estelle (1980) 445 U.S. 263; Solem v. Helm, supra, 463 U.S. at p. 277; and Harmelin v. Michigan (1991) 501 U.S. 957, 115 L. Ed. 2d 836.

The court concluded, "the only relevant clearly established law amenable to the 'contrary to' or 'unreasonable application of' framework of the AEDPA is the gross disproportionality principle, the precise contours of which are unclear, applicable only in the 'exceedingly rare' and 'extreme' case. "

The court then considered the facts of Andrade's case and concluded those facts were not "materially indistinguishable" from the facts in either Solem or Rummel, and that the state court could not be said to have arrived at a result different from United States Supreme Court precedent. (Andrade, supra, 123 S. Ct. at p. 1174.) The Andrade court also concluded there was no "unreasonable application" of a governing legal principle. (Id. at p. 1175.)

In sum, the Supreme Court in Andrade concluded that since the application of the three strikes law to produce a 50-years-to-life sentence for petty theft was not contrary to, and did not result in an unreasonable application of, established law, Andrade's petition for writ of habeas corpus must be denied under the terms of the AEDPA.

The opinion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals consequently was reversed.