The regulation, based on the baseball rule “three strikes and you’re out,” mandates a sentence ranging from 25 years to life in prison for a defendant convicted of a felony if he has already been convicted of two previous serious or violent felonies. Twenty-six states and the federal government have some form of the law, intended to punish repeat offenders.
However, defense attorneys argued that under California law, crimes that could otherwise be considered misdemeanors could also be treated as felonies — opening up the possibility that a minor, nonviolent infraction could trigger the extended sentence.
In two 5-4 rulings, the court rejected attorneys’ arguments that the regulation violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment by mandating a punishment that was “grossly disproportionate” to the crime.
One ruling upheld the sentence of Gary Ewing, who received a sentence of 25 years to life for stealing golf clubs worth about $1,200.
The justices also reversed a federal court ruling that overturned the 25 years to life sentence for another man, Leandro Andrade, convicted of stealing videotapes worth $153.
Both men had previously been convicted of two serious or violent felonies, leading to the lengthier sentence for their third conviction.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the sentencing rule, as used in the Ewing case, “is justified by the state’s public-safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons and amply supported by [Ewing’s] own long, serious criminal record.”
However, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Ewing’s situation was “a rare case — one in which a court can say with reasonable confidence that the punishment is grossly disproportionate to the crime.”
In another set of rulings, the court decided that states can post photos of convicted sex offenders on Internet registries without unconstitutionally punishing them twice.
The rulings in two separate cases dealing with the issue are considered a victory for states with regulations, known as Megan’s Laws, that require the names of sex offenders to be placed on registries. The decisions were the court’s first review of such laws, named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl kidnapped, raped and killed in 1994 by a convicted sex offender.
All 50 states have some version of the registry, which was adopted in an effort to protect communities from repeat sexual predators.
In a 6-3 ruling, the high court rejected the arguments of two Alaska sex offenders who said they had already served prison sentences for their crimes and contended the registries amounted to a second punishment.
Alaska requires people convicted of sex offenses to register with officials and places their name, picture, address and other information on a searchable Web site.
In another case, the justices ruled unanimously that Connecticut did not have to hold separate hearings to determine the risk posed by convicted sex offenders before placing them in the state’s registry.
However, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the court, said the case did not provide the justices the opportunity to rule on whether the registry law violates Constitutional due process rights.