Punishment

Court has wide discretion to deny petition for resentencing of defendant serving three strike sentence for unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.


People v. Valencia (2017) 3 C.5th 347, 220 C.R.3d 230, 397 P.3d 936, addressed the extent to which a court has discretion to deny a petition for resentencing under Proposition 36. In 2012, the electorate enacted Proposition 36 to amend the three strikes law. The amendment requires the third strike to be a serious or violent felony in order to trigger the increased punishment for third strike offenders. Proposition 36 added P.C. 1170.126, which allows a person serving a three strike sentence for a felony that was not serious or violent to petition for resentencing. P.C. 1170.126(f) grants the court the discretion to deny such a petition if it finds that the defendant poses an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety," but the code section does not define that term. In 2014, the electorate enacted Proposition 47 to reduce several felonies to misdemeanors. Proposition 47 contains a similar mechanism for defendants serving felony sentences for the offenses that had been reduced to petition for recall of sentence in P.C. 1170.18. Again, the court has discretion to deny a petition if the defendant poses an "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety," but the term is defined in P.C. 1170.18(c): "As used throughout this Code, 'unreasonable risk of danger to public safety' means an unreasonable risk that the petitioner will commit a new violent felony" within a list of specified felonies.

In each of two cases, a defendant serving a three strike sentence for a third offense that was not serious or violent petitioned for resentencing under Proposition 36. Each trial court denied the petition based on a finding that resentencing would pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety due to the defendant's history of alcohol abuse or domestic violence. The Court of Appeal affirmed each judgment, rejecting each defendant's argument that the definition of "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety" in Proposition 47 should apply to his case. Held, affirmed.

(a) The definition of "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety" in Proposition 47 does not apply to resentencing under Proposition 36. Viewed in isolation, the phrase "as used throughout this code" appears unambiguous and would be understood to apply to the entire Penal Code, including P.C. 1170.126. However, the meaning of isolated statutory language can be informed by, and must be consistent with, the provisions of the relevant statute and initiative as a whole. Thus, language that seems clear may be rendered ambiguous in light of the statute as a whole or the overall statutory scheme. When considered in the context of the entire statute, the phrase is ambiguous and ultimately cannot be applied to Proposition 36 proceedings. People v. Cordova (2016) 248 C.A.5th 543, 203 C.R.3d 700, 3 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Punishment, Supp., §421B, is "effectively" overruled. (3 C.5th 356, 366, fn. 7.)

(b) Although the words “as used throughout this code” in P.C. 1170.18(c) may appear clear and unambiguous when viewed in isolation, the ambiguity regarding the intended meaning and scope of P.C. 1170.18(c) becomes apparent when this language is viewed in the context of the subject matter of Proposition 47 as a whole and, in particular, in the context of P.C. 1170.18. The primary focus of Proposition 47 was reducing the punishment for a specifically designated category of low-level felonies from felony to misdemeanor sentences. It did not purport to alter the sentences for other felonies. (3 C.5th 360.)

(c) P.C. 1170.18(c) itself contains language that reasonably supports the conclusion that it was intended to apply only to persons who are eligible for resentencing under Proposition 47. The statutory phrase, "unreasonable risk of danger to public safety" means an unreasonable risk that "the" petitioner will commit a new specified felony. The use of the definite article “the,” indicates that the definition applies only to those individuals applying for relief under Proposition 47. Given that nothing in the subject matter of P.C. 1170.18 as a whole suggests a connection to Proposition 36 or to serious and violent felonies, the placement of P.C. 1170.18(c) within that statute indicates that the subdivision was not intended to amend the resentencing criteria for Proposition 36. (3 C.5th 361.)

(d) The uncodified preamble to Proposition 47 also supports the conclusion that the definition in P.C. 1170.18(c) is limited to persons petitioning for relief under Proposition 47. The proposition was intended to ensure that sentences for persons convicted of dangerous crimes are not altered and that persons convicted of the relatively minor reduced crimes may be resentenced. It is not unreasonable to view the term “dangerous crimes” as encompassing the serious and violent felonies addressed by both the three strikes law and by Proposition 36. Construing the phrase “as used throughout this code” as expansive would be inconsistent with the findings, declarations, purpose, and intent found in the preamble. (3 C.5th 362.)

(e) Because the phrase “as used throughout this code” is ambiguous in context, consideration of outside evidence is appropriate, including the voter information materials concerning Proposition 47. Nothing in the materials suggest that the initiative would alter the resentencing criteria under Proposition 36, resulting in the potential release of additional recidivist serious or violent felony offenders. Nor does the Legislative Analyst's Analysis of Proposition 47 included in the Voter Information Guide make any reference to the three strikes law. Further, the published arguments for and against Proposition 47 discuss only the reductions of certain felonies to misdemeanors and do not mention Proposition 36. (3 C.5th 364.) Further weighing against an expansive interpretation of the phrase “as used throughout this code” is the fact that Proposition 47 provides no guidance concerning how to implement the resentencing of three strike inmates under the new definition of “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” (3 C.5th 367.)

(f) Two presumptions generally applied to measures approved by the initiative process do not alter the result:

(1) First is the presumption that voters have considered the text of the laws proposed by an initiative. When Proposition 47 was presented to the voters, the phrase “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” appeared in only one other section, P.C. 1170.126(f). If Proposition 47 was intended to amend Proposition 36, the drafters of Proposition 47 could have simply made a direct reference to the single relevant provision intended to be amended. Without an express reference to P.C. 1170.126, the average voter would not have known the effect of the phrase, “as used throughout this code.” Indeed, even professional bodies charged with enforcing the law and assessing the effects of proposed legislation did not identify the need to refer to Proposition 36. (3 C.5th 370.)

(2) Second is the presumption that voters are aware of existing laws. Without guidance from the drafters of Proposition 47 or from the Voter Information Guide, it is unreasonable to conclude that the reference in the measure to an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” would have triggered awareness on the part of voters that this was precisely the same language applied to govern the resentencing of three strike inmates. (3 C.5th 372.)

(g) Applying the definition of an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” in Proposition 47 to the resentencing proceedings of three strike inmates would ease the burden for recidivist serious or violent offenders to have their sentences vacated, and render them more likely to be released. If Proposition 47 had been intended to amend Proposition 36 in order to allow additional three strike inmates to be resentenced, one would expect its drafters to have mentioned or referred to that purpose. Moreover, such an amendment necessarily would be inconsistent with the broad discretion that Proposition 36, 2 years earlier, had given to resentencing courts to determine which offenders are too dangerous to be eligible for resentencing. Instead, Proposition 47 explicitly assured voters that the sentences of persons convicted of dangerous crimes and various sex crimes would not change. (3 C.5th 373.)

(h) Declining to apply the definition in Proposition 47 to persons seeking resentencing under Proposition 36 does not violate constitutional equal protection. Those resentenced under Proposition 36 are not similarly situated to those resentenced under Proposition 47. Proposition 47 focuses on offenders convicted of relatively minor nonserious, nonviolent felonies. In contrast, Proposition 36 concerns the resentencing of recidivist offenders who had two prior violent or serious felony convictions and a third nonserious, nonviolent felony conviction. (3 C.5th 375.)

In a concurring opinion, three justices emphasized that Proposition 47 in its entirety, together with the related ballot materials, indicate that the voters did not intend the definition of "unreasonable risk" to apply to persons seeking resentencing under Proposition 36. (3 C.5th 377.) In two strongly worded opinions, three justices dissented, one stating that the majority decision "crosses the line from statutory interpretation to judicial legislation." (3 C.5th 386, 388, 405.)


Witkin References

On the three strikes law, see 3 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Punishment, §421 et seq.

On Proposition 36, see 3 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Punishment, Supp., §421A et seq.

On Proposition 47, see 3 Cal. Crim. Law (4th), Punishment, Supp., §308A et seq.

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Last updated
Wednesday, September 13, 2017