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Name: People v. Valencia
Case #: S223825
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 07/03/2017

Proposition 47’s definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” does not apply to resentencing petitions filed under Proposition 36. Valencia was given a Three Strikes life sentence for his 2009 conviction of corporal injury to a spouse. Following the passage of the Three Strikes Reform Act in 2012, he petitioned for resentencing, but the trial court found he posed an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. On appeal Valencia argued that Proposition 47’s narrow definition of “unreasonable risk of danger” applies in a Proposition 36 resentencing. The California Supreme Court granted review after his sentence was affirmed. Held: Affirmed. The Reform Act amended the Three Strikes law to reserve life sentences to cases where the current felony is serious or violent. It provides a procedure whereby qualified defendants who are already serving a Three Strikes life term may seek resentencing, but allows the trial court to deny the petition if it finds the defendant poses an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety. Proposition 47 reclassified certain theft and drug-related felonies to misdemeanors and also set up a procedure for qualified defendant’s to seek resentencing (Pen. Code, § 1170.18, subd. (a)). In contrast to Proposition 36, Proposition 47 limits the court’s discretion to deny the petition by providing that, “as used throughout this Code, unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” means the risk the petitioner will commit a new violent “super strike” felony. The words “as used throughout this Code,” though plain when viewed in isolation, become ambiguous when read in light of the subject matter of Proposition 47 and in the context of section 1170.18, subdivision (c). Neither the ballot materials nor the impact analyses for Proposition 47 gave notice to voters that the measure would amend the Reform Act. In addition, Proposition 47 contains no discussion of resentencing Three Strikes inmates. To effectuate the voters’ intent, the ambiguity in wording must be resolved by holding that section 1170.18, subdivision (c)’s definition of “unreasonable risk of danger” does not apply in a Proposition 36 resentencing.

Refusing to construe Proposition 47’s definition of “unreasonable risk of danger” as applying to petitions filed under the Strikes Reform Act does not violate equal protection or due process. The concept of equal protection requires that persons who are similarly situated with respect to a law’s legitimate purposes must be treated equally. Those defendants resentenced under Proposition 36 are not similarly situated to those resentenced under Proposition 47. Proposition 47 focuses on offenders convicted of certain low-level, nonserious, nonviolent drug and theft felonies which have been reduced to misdemeanors. Proposition 36, however, applies to recidivist offenders who have two or more prior convictions for serious and/or violent felonies, but whose commitment offense was not serious or violent, and who are serving a life Three Strikes sentence.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: