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Name: Ramirez v. Castro
Case #: 02-56066
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 04/19/2004

The defendant’s 25-life sentence for what amounted to three shoplifting convictions violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and the California Court of Appeal’s decision to the contrary was objectively unreasonable within the meaning of federal habeas statutes. The defendant here had pled to two counts of robbery resulting from two 1991 shoplifting incidents, one involving a security guard who suffered a minor injury when his foot was run over by a getaway car, and the other involving an open-handed pushing of a security guard as the defendant departed the store. He was placed on probation for three years and served six months in county jail. In 1996, after no intervening problems with the law, the defendant shoplifted a $199 VCR from a Sears store, and returned the VCR without incident after he was apprehended. Because of the prior robberies the current theft was charged as a felony, and the two priors were likewise charged as serious or violent felonies under Penal Code section 1170.12. Defendant’s challenges to his sentence in the state court were unsuccessful. The Ninth Circuit distinguished this case from Ewing v. California (2003) 538 U.S. 11 and Lockyer v. Andrade (2003) 539 U.S. 63 on the ground that this defendant lacked the egregious history of recidivism that was present in those cases. The Court of Appeals particularly noted that had the defendant’s prior convictions been for rape, murder, or some other offense not related to theft, his current offense would have been a misdemeanor. The court held that the sentence raised an inference of gross disproportionality both in regard to sentences imposed for similar crimes in California and in regard to sentences for similar crimes in other jurisdictions. Finally, the court held that the state court unreasonably applied the gross disproportionality analysis to the facts of the defendant’s case. One judge dissented, agreeing that the sentence was grossly disproportional but finding that federal habeas law precluded the federal appellate court from intervening.