By Prison Legal News
The California Supreme Court has held that, depending on the specifics of the
underlying offense, failure to register as a sex offender may subject a
defendant with two qualifying prior serious and/or violent convictions to a
sentence of 25 years to life under the state’s infamous “Three Strikes” law.
Convicted sex offender Willie Clifford Coley was sentenced to a term of 25 years
to life in prison for failing to update his registration within five days of
his birthday in 2001. Several years later, in a case involving another sex
offender convicted of the same offense, a divided panel of the California Court
of Appeal held that the imposition of a 25-years-to-life sentence for this
“most technical and harmless violation of the registration law” was grossly
disproportionate to the gravity of the offense and hence
violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
See: People v. Carmony 127 Cal.App.4th 1066 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2005).
Based on this later ruling, Coley filed a habeas petition alleging that his
conviction was unconstitutional based on the same grounds. The Court of Appeal
denied his petition, however, concluding that Carmony had been wrongly decided.
On review, the California Supreme Court found it unnecessary to determine
whether Carmony was wrongly decided. Rather, it distinguished Coley’s conduct
from that in Carmony; whereas the defendant in Carmony had “demonstrated a good
faith attempt to comply with the sex offender registration law,” Coley, the
Court found, had “knowingly and intentionally refused to comply with his
[registration] obligations.” Because Coley was “still intentionally unwilling
to comply with an important legal obligation,” his triggering criminal conduct
(unlike the defendant in Carmony) “bore both a rational and substantial
relationship to the antirecidivist purposes of the Three Strikes law.” Thus,
Coley’s life sentence was affirmed. See: In re Coley, 55 Cal. 4th 524, 283 P.3d
1252 (Cal. 2012).
Note that under Prop. 36, enacted by California voters on November 6, 2012, the
state’s Three Strikes law was revised to permit the imposition of a
third-strike life sentence only when the third felony conviction is “serious or
violent,” as defined by statute. Presumably, this change in state law may
preclude third-strike life sentences for certain sex offenders who receive a
third strike for failing to register. However, Prop. 36 also includes
exceptions; for example, life sentences still may be imposed for non-serious,
non-violent third-strike convictions if the offender has prior convictions for
rape or child molestation. Thus, some sex offenders may still receive
third-strike life sentences for failure to register if they have qualifying
(First published by Prison Legal News and used here by permission)