Tuesday, December 30, 2008

9th Circuit Court: Sex Offender Sentence Illegal

Sentencing Law and Policy: Ninth Circuit finds 28-year "failure to register" sentence unconstitutional.

The case of Gonzales v. Duncan, No. 06-56523 (9th Cir. Dec. 30, 2008) (available here).

Cecilio Gonzalez was convicted by a jury of failing to update his annual sex offender registration within five working days of his birthday, in violation of California Penal Code § 290(a)(1)(D). Because of his prior criminal convictions, he received a sentence of 28 years to life imprisonment under California's “Three Strikes” law. On habeas review, we must decide whether his sentence violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and, if so, whether the contrary conclusion of the California Court of Appeal constituted an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.

The California courts have characterized the state’s registration requirement as a regulatory offense, a “most technical violation” that “by itself, pose[s] no danger to society.” People v. Cluff, 105 Cal. Rptr. 2d 80, 81, 86 (Cal. Ct. App. 2001). In a case materially indistinguishable from this one, the California Court of Appeal concluded that a Three Strikes sentence of 25 years to life imprisonment for violating the registration requirement was “grossly disproportionate to the offense” and violated the Eighth Amendment. People v. Carmony, 26 Cal. Rptr. 3d 365, 368-69 (Cal. Ct. App. 2005). Although our standard of review is more deferential, we too conclude that Gonzalez’s sentence is grossly disproportionate to his offense. We further conclude that the California Court of Appeal’s decision affirming Gonzalez’s sentence constitutes an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). We therefore reverse the district court’s denial of Gonzalez’s petition and remand with instructions to grant the petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

The fact that a federal circuit court has found a non-capital prison sentence unconstitutionally excessive is big new in itself.