Facts of the case
On March 12, 2000, Gary Ewing, a serial offender with a long history of criminal convictions, was arrested for stealing three golf clubs, each worth $399, from a Los Angeles-area golf course. At the time of his arrest, Ewing was on parole from a 9-year prison term for convictions in three burglaries and one robbery. Under California’s three strikes law, another felony conviction would require a sentence of 25 years to life. Ewing was charged with and convicted of one count of felony grand theft for the incident at the golf course. During sentencing, Ewing requested the judge in the case exercise discretion permitted under California law and reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor. The judge declined and sentenced Ewing in accordance with the three strikes law. On appeal, Ewing argued the sentence of 25 years to life was grossly disproportionate to the crime and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments. The court, reasoning that the three strikes law served the state’s legitimate interests, rejected this claim. The California Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Why is the case important?
The Defendant, Gary Ewing (Defendant), was convicted of one count of felony grand theft. Since he had previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies, Defendant was sentenced, under California’s “three strikes” law to 25 years to life in prison.
Does California’s three strikes law violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, which prohibits sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed?
No. Judgment affirmed. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is violated where the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime. The examination of a statute challenged on Eighth Amendment constitutional grounds must be guided by the [following] principles: “the primacy of the legislature, the variety of legitimate penological schemes, the nature of our federal system, and the requirement that proportionality review be guided by objective factors–that inform the final one: The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime.” Three strikes laws have the clear purpose of isolating career criminals from the general population since traditional forms of deterrence have not been effective. The Constitution does not mandate the adoption of a single, specific penological scheme, but rather, the state legislatures must decid
e this themselves. Hence, California, upon determining that recidivism among criminals presents a serious public safety concern, properly enacted a statute designed to isolate the repeat offender for an extended period. Accordingly, Defendant’s sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.
The Court determined that the Eighth Amendment did not prohibit California from making a judgment that protecting the public safety requires incapacitating criminals who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent crime. The Court determined that petitioner’s sentence of 25 years to life in prison, imposed for the offense of felony grand theft under the three strikes law, was not grossly disproportionate and therefore did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. Petitioner’s sentence reflected a rational legislative judgment, entitled to deference, that offenders who have committed serious or violent felonies and who continue to commit felonies must be incapacitated.
- Advocates: Michael Chertoff for United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Respondent Quin Denvir on behalf of the Petitioner Donald E. De Nicola on behalf of the Respondent Deputy Attorney General for respondent Donald M. Falk for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal Andrew H. Schapiro for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal Mary Price for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal Dennis L. Stout for the California District Attorneys Association as amicus curiae Grover D. Merritt for the California District Attorneys Association as amicus curiae
- Petitioner: Gary Ewing
- Respondent: California
- DECIDED BY:Rehnquist Court
- Location: El Segundo Golf Course
|Citation:||538 US 11 (2003)|
|Argued:||Nov 5, 2002|
|Decided:||Mar 5, 2003|