Trial court’s consideration of juvenile offender’s youth in determining whether to strike a prior serious felony before imposing a de facto LWOP sentence did not adequately discharge its duty under the Eighth Amendment. Carter was convicted of second degree murder and gun use for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. A prior serious felony was found true. He was sentenced to 55 years to life. On appeal he challenged his sentence as cruel and unusual punishment. Held: Reversed and remanded. The Eighth Amendment restrictions on sentencing juveniles to LWOPs also apply to terms that are de facto LWOP sentences. Sentencing a child to LWOP is excessive for all but the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. Thus, before imposing an LWOP sentence, the court must consider the factors set forth in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460: (1) the juvenile’s age and its hallmark features; (2) environmental factors, such as a history of abuse; (3) the circumstances of the offense; (4) whether the offender may have been charged with a lesser offense but for the incompetencies of youth; and (5) any information bearing on the possibility of rehabilitation. (People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1354.) Here, the trial court’s weighing of the characteristics of youth in determining whether to strike the juvenile’s prior serious felony did not adequately discharge its duty to evaluate these factors in fashioning an appropriate sentence. There is a presumption in favor of a Three Strikes sentence, but under Eighth Amendment principles there must be no presumption in favor of LWOP or its equivalent for a minor. Further, the trial court did not find Carter irreparably corrupt, but only currently unwilling to change.
The appeal was not rendered moot by 2013 legislation affording early parole hearings for juveniles with life sentences. Senate Bill 260, which provides for early parole hearings for certain juvenile defendants does not apply to sentences imposed under the Three Strikes law (Pen. Code, § 3051, subd. (h)). Therefore, Carter’s appeal was not moot.
On remand, the trial court shall transfer the case to the juvenile court for a transfer hearing. Recently, the California Supreme Court held that the change in the law requiring that all criminal cases against juveniles be initiated in juvenile court (Prop. 57) is retroactive. (People v. Superior Court (Lara) (2018) 4 Cal.5th 299). Thus, the conviction was conditionally reversed and remanded to the trial court with directions to transfer the case to juvenile court for a fitness hearing.
If the juvenile court finds transfer to the criminal court appropriate, the criminal court shall reinstate the convictions and conduct a new sentencing hearing. In addition to considering the distinctive attributes of youth upon resentencing, Carter may ask the trial court to exercise its discretion under SB 620 to strike the gun use enhancement.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/C074051.PDF