Ewing v. California

RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: El Segundo Golf Course

DOCKET NO.: 01-6978
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 538 US 11 (2003)
ARGUED: Nov 05, 2002
DECIDED: Mar 05, 2003

Andrew H. Schapiro - for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal
Donald M. Falk - for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal
Deputy Attorney General - for respondent
Donald E. De Nicola - on behalf of the Respondent
Dennis L. Stout - for the California District Attorneys Association as amicus curiae
Grover D. Merritt - for the California District Attorneys Association as amicus curiae
Michael Chertoff - for United States, as amicus curiae, supporting the Respondent
Mary Price - for Families Against Mandatory Minimums as amicus curiae urging reversal
Quin Denvir - on behalf of the Petitioner

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.


Did Ewing's sentence of 25 years to life, in accordance with California's three strikes law, violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment?

Media for Ewing v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 05, 2002 in Ewing v. California

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 05, 2003 in Ewing v. California

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in two cases will be announced by Justice O’Connor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

I will announce first the opinion in Ewing versus California, No. 01-6978.

The case comes on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals of California’s Second Appellate District.

California’s Three-Strikes Law was designed to protect the public safety by ensuring longer prison terms and greater punishment for repeat felony offenders.

Under the Three-Strikes Law, defendant who is convicted of a felony and has previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies must receive a sentence of at least twenty-five years to life in prison.

While on parole from a nine-year prison term, the petitioner stole three golf clubs worth nearly $400 a piece from a pro shop, a California jury convicted petitioner of felony grand theft.

The prosecutor alleged and the Trial Court found the petitioner had been convicted previously of four serious or violent felonies.

In sentencing petitioner to twenty five years to life, the Trial Court declined to exercise its discretion either to reduce petitioner’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor or to dismiss the allegations of some or all of his prior convictions.

The California Court of Appeal affirmed concluding the petitioner’s sentence did not violate the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court of California denied review.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk of the Court today, we affirm the California Court of Appeals' decision.

In enacting the Three-Strikes Law, the California Legislature made a deliberate policy choice that individuals who have repeatedly engaged in serious or violent criminal behavior and whose conduct has not been deterred by more conventional approaches to punishment must be isolated from society in order to protect the public safety.

Though, Three-Strikes Laws may be relatively new, we have a long-standing tradition of deferring to State legislatures in making and implementing these kinds of important policy decisions.

The Constitution does not mandate the adoption of any one penalogical theory and nothing in the Eight Amendment prohibits California from deciding to incapacitate repeat offenders like petitioner who have already been convicted of at least one serious or violent felony.

We have long recognized recidivism as a legitimate basis for punishment and it is a serious public safety concern in California and across the nation.

Any criticism of the law should be directed at the legislature which is primarily responsible for making the policy choices that underlie any criminal sentencing scheme.

Petitioner’s sentence is long but so is his criminal history.

He has served nine separate prison terms and committed most of crimes while on probation or parole.

His prior strikes were serious felonies including robbery and residential burglary.

In weighing the gravity of his current offence, we must also place on the scales petitioner’s long record of recidivism.

Though long, petitioner’s sentence reflects a rational legislative judgment that is entitled a deference.

Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas each have filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion which Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer have joined; Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Stevens, Souter, and Ginsburg have joined.

Stephen G. Breyer:

As Justice O’Connor said, Justice Stevens, Justice Souter, Justice Ginsburg and I dissent that the crime at issue here consists of theft of three golf clubs with a sticker price totaling $1,197.

The offender has a prior criminal record that includes four prior felony convictions arising out of three burglaries, one with a knife.

The sentence consists of twenty five years of real prison time not mitigated by any possibility of parole.

The legal question is whether this sentence is grossly disproportionate.

In answering this question, we recognize, the four of us, what this court has previously held.

First, the Eighth Amendment does apply to a sentence for a term of years; second, the Constitution does leave the States with great sentencing leeway forbidding only the rare sentence at the outer bound, and third, it is important for courts to apply objective criteria in so far as possible.

We have tried to apply reasonably objective criteria and our conclusion is that this case does present that rare case where a punishment is grossly disproportionate.

In our view, comparative sentencing practices provide the most reliable objective measure of proportionality, but we accept, at least for argument’s sake, the majority's view that we should make these comparisons only after first determining that a sentence crosses a legal threshold, a threshold that we assume is designed to separate whether perfectly innocuous sheep from the potential goats.