California Supreme Court Overturns Three-Strikes Sentence Enhancement

California Supreme Court RulingThe California Supreme Court has overturned a defendant’s five year sentence enhancement under California Penal Code 667(a), California’s “three strikes” law. ” The enhancement was based upon the defendant having been previously convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.

A unanimous court held that since a judge had reduced the earlier crime from a felony to a misdemeanor before the defendant had committed his most recent crimes, the offense no longer qualified as a prior serious felony within the meaning of 667(a), and could not be used to enhance his sentence.

In the earlier case, the defendant pleaded guilty to a charge of felony assault with a deadly weapon under California Penal Code 245(a)(1). The judge in that case suspended imposition of sentence and placed the defendant on three years’ probation.

After the defendant successfully completed the terms of his probation, the judge reduced the offense to a misdemeanor in accordance with the procedures of California Penal Code 17(b)(3).

In the later case, a jury found the defendant guilty of attempted voluntary manslaughter and assault with a firearm.

During sentencing, the prior conviction was revealed. Despite the court being told that the earlier offense had been reduced to a misdemeanor, the judge sentenced the defendant to a total term of 24 years, which included a second-strike sentence of 12 years for the assault conviction and a five-year sentence enhancement under 667(a), based on the defendant having been previously convicted of a serious felony.

The California Supreme Court noted that assault with a deadly weapon falls into a class of crimes commonly referred to as “wobblers” -- that is, crimes chargeable or, in the court’s discretion, punishable as either a felony (with a term in state prison) or a misdemeanor (imprisonment in county jail and/or imposition of a fine). Under 17(b)(3), a court may reduce a wobbler to a misdemeanor either by declaring the crime a misdemeanor at the time probation is granted or at a later time — for example, when the defendant has successfully

Assault with a deadly weapon under California Penal Code 245(a)(1) is a wobbler because it is punishable by “imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.”

A provision of the Three Strikes law says that the determination of whether a prior conviction qualifies as a strike for purposes of sentencing is based “upon the date of that prior conviction and is not affected by the sentence imposed unless the sentence automatically, upon the initial sentencing, converts the felony to a misdemeanor.”

But despite that provision, the California Supreme Court held that a defendant whose wobbler was properly reduced to a misdemeanor pursuant to 17(b)(3) is not a person “who previously has been convicted of a serious felony” within the meaning of 667(a) and, accordingly, the prior crime cannot be used for purposes of sentence enhancement.

The case is People v. Park, S193938, published on May 13, 2013.