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Federal appeals court reverses three strikes sentence for South Bay man

Posted on in Criminal Defense

In 1999, the man again faced a California DUI charge. A jury convicted the man of the charge at trial. The Santa Clara County judge in the case sentenced the man in 1999 to 25 years to life under California's three strikes law. The judge relied on the two prior DUI convictions as the first two strikes. The California Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and the California Supreme Court denied review.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower courts concluding that the judge made additional findings of fact regarding the prior convictions in violation of the South Bay man's due process rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions spanning more than a decade regarding a defendant's right to a jury.

At the 1999 sentencing, the prosecutor submitted documents to the court while arguing that the 1993 convictions should serve as two strikes. At issue was the conviction for inflicting bodily injury. The federal appeals court determined the trial judge found facts beyond the scope of the mere fact that the man had a previous conviction.

The 1993 conviction related to the girlfriend was for "causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of alcohol." To qualify as a first strike, the appellate court ruled, a finding of fact was necessary and the defendant has the right to have a jury decide facts that increase a sentence beyond the statutory maximum for the individual crime. Those facts must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

The appellate court says in invoking the California three strikes law the trial judge necessarily found that the defendant "personally inflicted bodily injury on" his girlfriend; the injury inflicted "was great" injury; and, the defendant's girlfriend "was not an accomplice." The federal appellate court says the defendant had the right for a jury to determine those facts as they are not necessary to the original conviction.

Source: US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, "Wilson v. Knowles," 8 Feb 2011

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