SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- In a serious blow to California's three-strikes law, a federal appeals court has ruled that life in prison for shoplifting is cruel and unusual punishment.
Thursday's decision by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to overturn the sentences of 340 people serving life terms for shoplifting. It also may spark appeals from inmates serving life for other nonviolent offenses in California, one of a number of states where "three-strikes" laws permit long sentences for criminals convicted of a third felony.
The California law is the harshest of those repeat offender statutes. It lets judges sentence defendants to 25 years-to-life for any felony conviction if they have already been convicted of two serious or violent felonies. A serious felony could include burglary of an unoccupied house or shoplifting.
The first case decided Thursday involved Richard Brown, who was sentenced to life after being convicted of stealing a $25 car alarm in San Joaquin County. Brown's first felony was for robbery in which he used a knife and injured a victim. His other conviction was for hitting a woman with a pistol.
The other case involved Earnest Bray, who has four Los Angeles County robbery convictions, some of them with force. He was given a life term after shoplifting three videotapes.
"Our decision does not hold the California three strikes law unconstitutional, only its application to mandate a 25-year-to-life sentence for petty theft offenses," Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the panel.
The ruling comes three months after a different three-judge panel from the same circuit ruled the three-strikes law could produce unconstitutionally cruel and unusual sentences.
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