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One Strike Law Pleading and Sentencing

Case Name: In re Vaquera (2024) 15 Cal.5th 706
Case #: S258376
Last Updated: February 5, 2024

(1) Did the Court of Appeal err by disagreeing with People v. Jimenez (2019) 35 Cal.App.5th 373 and endorsing as mandatory the sentencing practice prohibited in that case; (2) Is the Court of Appeal’s decision incorrect under People v. Mancebo (2002) 27 Cal.4th 735; (3) Did the Court of Appeal err by failing to address petitioner’s claims as to the issues of waiver and estoppel?

Defendant’s 25-year-to-life sentence under the One Strike law violates due process because the information did not provide him fair notice of the prosecution’s election to seek that sentence. The prosecution charged Vaquera with two counts of committing a lewd act on a child under the age of 14 and a jury convicted him of both counts. In connection with one of these counts (count 2), the prosecution alleged a multiple victim circumstance under the One Strike law, which provides for a 15-year-to-life sentence, and the jury found the circumstance true. Although the One Strike law allegation as to count 2 did not specify that the prosecution was seeking a 25-year-to-life sentence based on the fact that the victim was under 14 years old, the trial court imposed a 25-year-to-life sentence after the prosecution requested this sentence in its sentencing brief. Vaquera ultimately filed a habeas petition in the Court of Appeal, arguing that his sentence on count 2 violated his due process rights because the information did not provide fair notice of the specific One Strike sentence he faced. The court denied the petition and the California Supreme Court granted review to resolve a split of authority on this issue. Held: Reversed. “To satisfy due process, it is sufficient for an accusatory pleading to provide the defendant fair notice of the particular One Strike sentence the prosecution is seeking and of which facts it intends to prove to support that sentence.” The court analyzed the language of the One Strike allegation for count 2 and concluded it failed to provide Vaquera with fair notice that the prosecution intended to invoke a 25-year-to-life sentence under Penal Code section 667.61(j)(2) for that count. The information did not specify that the prosecution was seeking 25 years to life on that count, cite subdivision (j)(2), or otherwise make clear that the prosecution was seeking a longer sentence based on the victim’s age. The ambiguous reference to count 2 in the allegation did not provide fair notice of the prosecution’s election to rely on the allegation of the victim’s age to seek a longer One Strike sentence. [Editor’s Note: (1) During its analysis of this issue, the court explained that “a prosecutor has the discretion to charge any provision of the One Strike law supported by the facts or, indeed, to elect not to invoke the One Strike law at all; nothing requires the prosecutor to charge the One Strike provision that carries the longest sentence.” The court disapproved People v. Zaldana (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 527, review granted 3/18/2020 (S259731), to the extent it is inconsistent with the court’s conclusion that the prosecution has discretion to allege a subdivision (b) circumstance rather than a subdivision (j)(2) circumstance where the defendant is charged with committing One-Strike-eligible offenses against multiple victims under the age of 14. (2) The court noted that the Legislature may wish to amend section 667.61(o) to state that the express pleading requirement applies to the circumstances specified in subdivisions (j), (l), and (m) as well as those specified in (d) and (e). (3) The court also provided examples of how an accusatory pleading could give adequate notice of a One Strike allegation.]

Defendant is entitled to be resentenced to 15 years to life on count 2. The court stated it need not decide whether the analysis in People v. Mancebo (2002) 27 Cal.4th 735 (“doctrines of waiver and estoppel, rather than harmless error, apply” where the prosecution’s failure to plead a One Strike allegation reflects a “discretionary charging decision”) applies in this case because, even assuming the due process violation is subject to a prejudice analysis, Vaquera is entitled to be resentenced to 15 years to life on count 2. After discussing the harmless error analysis outlined in People v. Anderson (2020) 9 Cal.5th 946, the court concluded that “[n]othing in the record here suggests Vaquera learned of his sentencing exposure on count 2 in time for him to take it into account in fashioning his defense strategy.” There was also nothing in the record to show that Vaquera had actual notice that he faced a 25-year-to-life sentence on count 2. Based on this record, the Attorney General did not meet his burden to show the fair notice violation was harmless. The court disagreed with the Attorney General’s argument that Vaquera had actual notice because the One Strike law required the court to impose a 25-year-to-life sentence. This argument rested on the erroneous premise that a 15-year-to-life sentence under section 667.61(b) would be unauthorized in the context of this case. However, “subdivision (j)(2) requires the court to impose a 25-year-to-life sentence only when it has been properly pled and proved.”

This case was decided on 2/5/2024. Justice Groban authored the opinion of the court (unanimous decision).

Review on this issue had also been granted with briefing deferred in:

First District

  • People v. Camphor (Aug. 31, 2020, A151488) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/10/2020 (S264836)
  • People v. Villegas (2023) 97 Cal.App.5th 253, review granted 1/31/2024 (S283126/A164370)

Second District

  • People v. Zaldana (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 527, review granted 3/18/2020 (S259731/B295959)
  • People v. Lopez (Aug. 25, 2021, B306060) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/10/2021 (S271094)
  • People v. Calla (Oct. 19, 2021, B301783) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 1/5/2022 (S271920)
  • People v. Atwood (Dec. 22, 2021, B304822) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 3/9/2022 (S272890)
  • People v. Robinson (B317209) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 9/14/2022 (S275364)
  • People v. Fairias (B314347) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 7/12/2023 (S280286)

Third District

  • People v. Schafer (Feb. 4, 2019, C083560) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 5/13/2020 (S261258)
  • People v. Lemons (May 18, 2021, C082451) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 7/21/2021 (S269342)
  • People v. Sinigur (C091622) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 5/17/2023 (S279466)

Fourth District

  • People v. Beavers (Nov. 30, 2020, G056848) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 2/24/2021 (S266408)
  • People v. Nash (2023) 87 Cal.App.5th 483, review granted 3/22/2023 (S278610/D079539)
  • People v. Ramirez (E077359) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 4/19/2023 (S278927)

Fifth District

  • People v. Figueroa (Aug. 26, 2020, F077514) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 12/9/2020 (S264653)
  • People v. Montes (Aug. 25, 2021, F078875) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 11/10/2021 (S271056)
  • People v. Long (Oct. 12, 2021, F079251) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 12/22/2021 (S271807)
  • People v. Rios (F080424) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 6/1/2022 (S274132)
  • People v. Sanchez (F077527) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 6/15/2022 (S274478)
  • People v. Gonzales (F080029) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 8/10/2022 (S275191)
  • People v. Bolanos (2023) 87 Cal.App.5th 1069, review granted 4/12/2023 (S278803/F082970)
  • People v. Santiz (F084188) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 1/24/2024 (S283103)

Sixth District

  • People v. Nieto (H047795) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 7/20/2022 (S275104)
  • People v. Khaliqi (H047928) [nonpub. opn.], review granted 8/24/2022 (S275164)
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