COURTESY of James R. Touchstone, Esq. of Jones & Mayer
On July 3, 2017, the California Supreme Court, in People v. Valencia, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 4893 (Cal. July 3, 2017), held that Proposition 47’s definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to the public” does not apply to resentencing proceedings under Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act.
In November 2012, California voters enacted Proposition 36, the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (“Proposition 36” or “Three Strikes Reform Act”). Proposition 36 modified the State’s “Three Strikes” law to reduce the punishment imposed when a defendant’s third felony conviction is not serious or violent. Proposition 36 also created a procedure governing inmates sentenced under former Three Strikes law whose third strike was neither serious nor violent, allowing them to petition for resentencing in accordance with Proposition 36’s new sentencing provisions. The resentencing provisions provide that, if a court, in its discretion, determines that resentencing the petitioner would pose an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety,” the inmate will be denied resentencing. The phrase “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” is not defined in Proposition 36.
In exercising its discretion to deny resentencing, Proposition 36 gives courts broad discretion to consider evidence relating to an inmate’s criminal conviction history, including the types of crimes committed, the extent of injury to victims, the length of previous prison commitments, the remoteness of crimes, and the inmate’s disciplinary record and record of rehabilitation while incarcerated, as well as any other evidence the court determines to be relevant in deciding whether a new sentence would result in an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.
In November 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act (“Proposition 47”). Proposition 47 reduced certain drug-related and theft-related offenses that were previously felonies or “wobblers” to misdemeanors. Proposition 47 also created a procedure allowing inmates serving felony sentences for offenses that Proposition 47 reduced to misdemeanors to petition to have their felony classifications reclassified as misdemeanors and resentenced based on such reclassification. Similar to Proposition 36, Proposition 47 gave resentencing courts discretion to decline to impose a lesser sentence if resentencing would result in an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” Unlike Proposition 36, Proposition 47 defined “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” to mean “an unreasonable risk that the petitioner will commit a new felony within the meaning of [Penal Code section 667(e)(2)(C)(iv)].” Penal Code section 667(e)(2)(C)(iv) outlines eight types of serious or violent felonies, commonly referred to as “super strikes.”
David Valencia’s criminal record, dating back to 1995, includes convictions for kidnapping, making criminal threats, resisting arrest by threat or violence, driving under the influence of alcohol, inflicting corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant, as well as several misdemeanor convictions. In 2009, he was convicted a second time of corporal injury to a spouse or cohabitant. His 2009 conviction qualified as a third strike offense and he was sentenced to 25 years to life.
In 2013, following the enactment of Proposition 36, Valencia petitioned for resentencing. He argued that he was eligible for resentencing because (1) his third strike was not serious or violent, as defined by statute, (2) his third strike was not among crimes excluded from sentencing reforms, and (3) he had not suffered a conviction for a super strike. The People opposed resentencing, arguing that Valencia would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety in light of his criminal history. In August 2013, the sentencing court denied Valencia’s petition. The court noted that it felt that Valencia was a danger and an unreasonable risk to public safety.
On appeal, Valencia argued that Proposition 47 had amended the Three Strikes law by narrowing the sentencing court’s discretion to deny resentencing on the ground that the petitioner posed an unreasonable risk to public safety. The Court of Appeal rejected Valencia’s argument and affirmed the judgment. The California Supreme Court granted review.
California Supreme Court’s Decision
The California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, held that Proposition 47 did not amend the Three Strikes Reform Act, and therefore Proposition 47’s definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” does not apply to the Three Strikes Reform Act. In reaching its conclusion, the Court, citing to rules of statutory interpretation, focused on several factors. Among those factors, the Court pointed to the ballot materials and the uncodified aspects of Proposition 47.
It noted that, while viewed in isolation, Proposition 47’s statement that its definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” is to be “used throughout this Code” would be understood as amending the entire Penal Code, which includes the Three Strikes resentencing criteria, “isolated statutory language can be informed by and indeed must be consistent with the provisions of the relevant statute as a whole.” Valencia, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 4893 at *14. Looking at the phrase in the context of the statute and other provisions of Proposition 47, the Court noted that the ballot materials for Proposition 47 gave no notice to the voters that the measure was intended to amend the resentencing criteria of the Three Strikes Reform Act. It noted that neither the Attorney General, who is required to summarize ballot measures, nor the Legislative Analyst, who is required to explain to voters the fiscal impacts of ballot measures, interpreted the phrase “[a]s used throughout this Code” as referring to the sentencing criteria for the Three Strikes Reform Act. As such, the Court found that it was not reasonable to presume that voters detected a connection with the Three Strikes Reform Act.
The Court also highlighted express references in ballot materials assuring voters that persons convicted of murder, rape, and child molestation would not benefit from the measure, as well as references that the measure ensures that sentences for people convicted of “dangerous crimes” are not changed. The Court found that extending Proposition 47’s definition of “an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” to the Three Strikes Reform Act would conflict with Proposition 47’s express purpose of ensuring that people convicted of murder, rape, and child molestation would not benefit from the measure.
The Court also noted that Proposition 47 created detailed procedures for resentencing drug-related and theft-related felons to misdemeanants, but provided no similar procedural guidance for resentencing three strikes inmates under its definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety,” which the Court found “further detached any perceived connection with the Three Strikes Reform Act.” Valencia, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 4893 at *15.
In its conclusion, the Court explained that, had Proposition 47 truly intended to amend the Three Strikes Reform Act to permit three strikes inmates who, by definition, have records for multiple serious or violent felonies to be resentenced, one would expect the drafters to have mentioned or referred to such a purpose and intention in the measure’s preamble, but they did not. It also explained that, if Proposition 47 intended to limit the broad discretion given to resentencing courts two years earlier in determining which offenders are too dangerous to be eligible for resentencing and instead limit trial courts to considering only whether resentencing of a recidivist serious or violent offender posed a danger of committing a super strike, one would expect to see some mention of Three Strikes law, the Three Strikes Reform Act, three strikes inmates, life sentences, or why resentencing discretion required reform in the text of Proposition 47. However, the Court noted, there is none.
Based on all of these factors, the Court determined that it was reasonable to interpret Proposition 47’s definition of an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” as applicable only to resentencing proceedings under Proposition 47.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, trial courts retain broad discretion to consider any evidence they determine to be relevant in considering whether to resentence a third strike inmate. Whereas in the context of reducing certain drug-related and theft-related crimes from felonies or wobblers to misdemeanors, courts are limited to the narrow definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” set forth in Proposition 47, the Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that such limitation does not apply to judges considering whether to resentence a third strike offender under the Three Strikes Reform Act.
As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446-1400 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Proposition 36 is codified at California Penal Code § 1170.126.
 Proposition 47 is codified at California Penal Code § 1170.18.
 “Wobblers are ‘a special class of crimes involving conduct that varies widely in its level of seriousness,’ and therefore may be ‘chargeable or … punishable as either a felony or a misdemeanor.’” People v. Valencia, 2017 Cal. LEXIS 4893 at *3 n.2 (Cal. July 3, 2017) (citing People v. Park, 56 Cal. 4th 782, 789 (2013) and People v. Kunkel, 176 Cal. App. 3d 46, 51 n. 3 (1985).