Three Strikes Reform Doesn’t Apply to Armed Felons, California High Court Rules

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a unanimous decision Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled people convicted of a “third strike” aren’t entitled to a reduced sentence under voter-approved reforms if they were armed during the commission of their third crime.

The case involves Mario Estrada, who pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft for robbing a Radio Shack in Los Angeles in 1996. It was his third offense, so he received 25 years to life in prison under California’s “Three Strikes” law.

In 2012, voters passed Proposition 36 which permits third-strike inmates to petition for resentencing if their third conviction was not a serious or violent crime. Estrada sought release under the new law, but the sentencing judge denied his petition after relying on transcribed testimony from a Radio Shack employee that Estrada pulled a handgun during the robbery.

Estrada’s lawyers argued the judge had impermissibly used evidence ignored by prosecutors while negotiating Estrada’s 1996 plea agreement. Estrada unsuccessfully appealed, and on Monday the state Supreme Court upheld the judgment.

“To find that an inmate was armed with a firearm during the commission of the inmate’s third strike offense, a court reviewing a Proposition 36 recall petition may rely on facts underlying counts dismissed pursuant to the inmate’s plea agreement – so long as those facts establish the defendant was armed during his offense of conviction,” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuellar wrote for the court.

Proposition 36 allows judges to use any facts in the record of conviction that show a defendant was armed or violent while committing a crime, even though the statute doesn’t address the issue directly.

“We see no indication in the voter information guide that the act was designed to equate the ‘violent felons’ category solely with those convicted of inherently violent offenses,” Cuellar wrote. “To the contrary – we think it more faithful to Proposition 36’s crucial distinction to interpret its conception of violent offenders as including not only those inmates convicted of inherently violent offenses but also those who committed nonviolent offenses in a violent manner.”

Monday’s ruling falls in line with an earlier decision this month giving trial judges broad discretion to deny resentencing to third strikers that may pose an unreasonable threat to the public.

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