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Name: In re Coley
Case #: S185303
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 08/30/2012

Twenty-five-year-to-life sentence under “Three Strikes” law is not cruel and/or unusual punishment for a defendant who intentionally failed to comply with sex offender registration law. In People v. Carmony (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 1066 (Carmony II), the Third Appellate District concluded that a 25-year-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law constituted cruel and/or unusual punishment as applied to a defendant whose triggering offense was the failure to update his registration within five days of his birthday. In Carmony II, the defendant had properly registered at a new address a month before his birthday, continued to reside at the same address, had remained in contact with his parole agent, and was arrested a month after his birthday after failing to re-register. The appellate court found that because the offense was the most “technical and harmless violation of the registration law we have seen,” the imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense and therefore cruel and/or unusual punishment. In the present habeas proceeding, the Second Appellate District expressly disagreed with the appellate court in Carmony II and held that the punishment was constitutionally permissible. In light of the conflicting opinions, the Supreme Court granted review. The court agreed with the Second Appellate District that imposition of a 25-year-to-life sentence upon petitioner in this matter did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. However, it also concluded that it did not need to and should not rest its holding upon a determination that Carmony II was wrongly decided. The conduct of the defendant in this case was distinguishable from the minor technical violation in Carmony II. Here, the triggering violation was neither harmless nor technical. The trial court found that the petitioner had never registered at his current address, and had intentionally refused to comply with registration requirements. Thus the conduct bore both a rational and substantial relationship to the anti-recidivist purposes of the Three Strikes law. Given that relationship in addition to the “heinous” nature of petitioner’s criminal history, the 25-year-to-life sentence did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

It is appropriate for a reviewing court to rely upon the trial court’s factual findings regarding the circumstances related to the offense that are made during a sentencing hearing in deciding whether a sentence constitutes cruel and/or unusual punishment. Petitioner was charged with (1) failure to register as a sex offender upon arrival in a jurisdiction and (2) failure to update his sex offender registration within five working days of his birthday. He testified that he had in fact registered when he was first released from prison but admitted that he had not updated his registration within five days of his birthday. The jury acquitted the petitioner of the charge of failing to register upon his arrival in the jurisdiction but convicted him of failing to update his registration. At sentencing, the trial court stated that it did not believe the petitioner’s testimony and made a factual finding that the petitioner had intentionally failed to register. Relying on this finding, the trial court declined to strike any of petitioner’s prior convictions that he had admitted and imposed a 25-year-to-life sentence under the Three Strikes law. This did not violate petitioner’s constitutional right to a jury trial as set forth in Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466 and its progeny. A trial court may rely upon its factual findings related to an offense of which the defendant has been acquitted. The trial court’s finding did not mandate a particular sentence under the Three Strikes law. Instead, the trial court simply relied upon its factual determination in exercising the discretion afforded by the Three Strikes statutory scheme in choosing a sentence within the maximum term statutorily authorized by the jury’s verdict. When a trial court explicitly explains its reasons for declining to strike prior convictions for sentencing purposes, it is appropriate for the reviewing court to rely upon the trial court’s reasons and findings in evaluating a petitioner’s Eighth Amendment claim.