A federal appeals panel, interpreting California’s “three strikes” law, ruled that a 25-years-to-life sentence for stealing a $199 VCR amounted to unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment,” reported the Los Angeles Times. The majority in a 2 to 1 vote of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit called the case “exceedingly rare,” saying the defendant, Isaac Ramirez, had been given a sentence that was “grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed.”
Last year’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the three-strikes law said that sentencing thieves and petty criminals to life in prison for a third offense did not violate the 8th Amendment in most cases, but held out the possibility that some cases might be exceptions. This week’s ruling is the first declaring an exception, said University of Southern California law Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky.
A state trial judge, citing a “constant pattern” of criminal activity, had sentenced Ramirez to 25 years to life in prison, with no eligibility for parole until he had served 25 years. Ramirez filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. He won in a lower court and now in the Ninth Circuit. “It is doubtful that California’s Three Strikes law, passed largely in response to the infamous” Polly Klaas murder, “was ever intended to apply to a nonviolent, three-time shoplifter such as Ramirez,” wrote Judge Kim Wardlaw. “Neither the ‘harm caused or threatened to the victim or society,’ nor the ‘absolute magnitude’ of Ramirez’s three shoplifts justifies the Three Strikes sentence in this case.”
Dissenting Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said the decision was wrong because it did not show sufficient deference to a California appeals court that upheld Ramirez’s sentence.