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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Judges rule three-strikes sentence unconstitutional

California's three-strikes sentencing law suffered a blow Tuesday when a federal appeals court struck down as unconstitutional a 28-years-to-life sentence for a sex offender who failed to register with local police at the correct time of year.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of Cecilio Gonzalez back to federal district court in Los Angeles for resentencing after finding his 2001 penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the 8th Amendment.
Gonzalez's harsh sentence was grossly disproportionate to his "entirely passive, harmless and technical violation of the registration law," the appeals court said.

The California Penal Code requires a sex offender to register whereabouts annually within five working days of an ex-convict's birthday. Gonzalez had registered in Los Angeles County in May 2000 and confirmed his address a year later, meeting the yearly requirement but violating the deadline of his Feb. 24 birthday.

"This is not a case where my client failed to register. He failed to update his address information that was still good," said Gia Kim, the federal public defender who argued Gonzalez's case to the appeals court.
Registration infractions carry a maximum three-year sentence in California, and Gonzalez's oversight wouldn't even qualify as a crime in at least 11 states, wrote Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee, one of the court's more conservative judges.

Bybee also pointed out that Gonzalez, who has already been in prison for more than seven years for this third felony conviction, was facing substantially more severe punishment than that imposed in California for far more serious crimes, such as second-degree murder.

It was unclear how much significance Tuesday's ruling would have for others sentenced to long terms for minor third offenses. [Mark Godsey]
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