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Equal Protection Clause Challenge to Penal Code Section 3051

Case Name: People v. Hardin (2024) 15 Cal.5th 834
Case #: S277487
Last Updated: March 4, 2024

Does Penal Code section 3051, subdivision (h), violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by excluding young adults sentenced to life without the possibility of parole from youth offender parole consideration, while young adults sentenced to parole-eligible terms are entitled to such consideration?

On 10/4/2023, the California Supreme Court ordered supplemental briefing on the following issue: Whether the first step of the two-part inquiry used to evaluate equal protection claims, which asks whether two or more groups are similarly situated for the purposes of the law challenged, should be eliminated in cases concerning disparate treatment of classes or groups of persons, such that the only inquiry is whether the challenged classification is adequately justified under the applicable standard of scrutiny?

Appellant Tony Hardin is currently serving a life without parole sentence for a special circumstance murder he committed at age 25. He contends that the youth offender parole statute violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantee by irrationally discriminating against young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole—including, in particular, those sentenced to life without parole for special circumstance murder. Agreeing with Hardin and disagreeing with other appellate decisions to address the issue, the Court of Appeal held the life without parole exclusion invalid for lack of a rational basis.

We now reverse. The standard we apply here, rational basis review, is necessarily deferential. The law recognizes that “[i]t is both the prerogative and the duty of the Legislature to define degrees of culpability and punishment, and to distinguish between crimes in this regard.” (People v. Turnage (2012) 55 Cal.4th 62, 74 [144 Cal. Rptr. 3d 489, 281 P.3d 464].) Respect for the Legislature’s proper role—and ours—means that we may not strike down its enactment under a rational basis standard unless the challengers demonstrate that “there is no ‘rational relationship between the disparity of treatment and some legitimate governmental purpose.’” (Ibid.)

Without foreclosing the possibility of other as-applied challenges to the statute, we conclude that Hardin has not demonstrated that Penal Code section 3051’s exclusion of young adult offenders sentenced to life without parole is constitutionally invalid under a rational basis standard, either on its face or as applied to Hardin and other individuals who are serving life without parole sentences for special circumstance murder. Under California law, special circumstance murder is a uniquely serious offense, punishable only by death or life without possibility of parole. When it was considering whether to expand the youth offender parole system to include not only juvenile offenders but also certain young adults, the Legislature could rationally balance the seriousness of the offender’s crimes against the capacity of all young adults for growth, and determine that young adults who have committed certain very serious crimes should remain ineligible for release from prison. Hardin has not demonstrated that the Legislature acted irrationally in declining to grant the possibility of parole to young adult offenders convicted of special circumstance murder, even as it has granted youth offender hearings to young adults convicted of other offenses.

This conclusion does not turn on this court’s judgments about what constitutes sound sentencing policy. It turns on the deference we owe to the policy choices made through the democratic process by the people of California and their elected representatives. The legislative branch may continue to consider the appropriate reach of the youth offender parole statute in light of the recognized capacity of young persons for growth and change. Hardin has not, however, established that the legislative policy choices reflected in current law are irrational and therefore impermissible as a matter of equal protection.

This case was decided on 3/4/2024. Justice Kruger authored the opinion of the court, in which Chief Justice Guerrero and Justices Corrigan, Groban, and Jenkins concurred. Justice Liu filed a dissenting opinion and Justice Evans filed a dissenting opinion.

Review on this issue was also granted with briefing deferred in:

First District

  • People v. Garcia (2022) 83 Cal.App.5th 240, review granted 1/11/2023 (S276858/A161579, A161644)
  • People v. Washington (A166126) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 9/13/2023 (S281298)
  • People v. Brooks (A165428) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 10/11/2023 (S281645)
  • People v. Clark (A165985) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/1/2023 (S281956)

Second District

  • People v. Gonzalez (B302834/B303671) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/15/2023 (S277936)
  • People v. Alvarez (B317490) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 4/12/2023 (S278726)
  • People v. Evans (B319762) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 5/17/2023 (S279335)
  • People v. Wilson (B322501) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 5/31/2023 (S279278)
  • People v. Buchanan (B316996) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 8/9/2023 (S280745)
  • People v. Alvez (B325218) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 12/13/2023 (S282271)
  • People v. Chappell (B325387) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 1/10/2024 (S282836)
  • People v. Rios (B326828) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 1/10/2024 (S282971)
  • People v. Esquivias (B325929) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/14/2024 (S283283)
  • People v. Barrascout (B325028) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/21/2024 (S283134)
  • People v. Huezo (B324331) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/21/2024 (S283401)

Third District

  • People v. Etherton (C093209) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 10/11/2023 (S281389)
  • People v. Collins (C097619) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/28/2024 (S283490)

Fourth District

  • People v. Ngo (2023) 89 Cal.App.5th 116, review granted 5/17/2023 (S279458/E078723)
  • People v. Jackson (E080543) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/1/2023 (S282031)
  • People v. Palumbo (D081085) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/15/2023 (S282057)
  • People v. Salgado (E080948) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 12/13/2023 (S282495)
  • People v. Poncio (G061931) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 12/20/2023 (S282701)
  • People v. Walz (E080712) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/28/2024 (S283574)
  • People v. Casares (E081067) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 3/12/2024 (S283660)

Fifth District

  • People v. Bolanos (2023) 87 Cal.App.5th 1069, review granted 4/12/2023 (S278803/F082970)
  • People v. Sutton (F079285) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 4/19/2023 (S278770)
  • People v. Anchondo (F084372) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 8/9/2023 (S280692)
  • People v. Edwards (F083956) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 10/11/2023 (S281505)
  • People v. Parker (F085642) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 10/18/2023 (S281258)
  • People v. Espinoza (F084093) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/21/2023 (S282341)
  • People v. Foreman (F084001) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/28/2024 (S283516)

Sixth District

  • People v. Bejarano (H047892) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 5/17/2023 (S279311)
  • People v. Cardenas (H050411) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 1/17/2024 (S283014)

 

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