William Palmer, serving a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole, filed this petition for writ of habeas corpus to challenge his continued incarceration for a crime committed in 1988 as cruel and unusual punishment under article 1, section 17, of the California Constitution and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Historically, it was the absence of any yardstick by which to gauge the proportionality of a given inmate’s sentence (within the permissible statutory range under the former indeterminate sentencing law) that led the California Supreme Court to require the Board to set a maximum term, based solely on the circumstances of the crime and not postconviction factors, to facilitate prisoners’ ability to seek, and courts’ ability to provide, meaningful review. (In re Rodriguez, (1975) 14 Cal.3d 639, 654, fn. 18 (Rodriguez).
When a defendant challenges the imposition of a sentence as constitutionally excessive punishment, “[t]he judicial inquiry commences with great deference to the Legislature. Fixing the penalty for crimes is the province of the Legislature, which is in the best position to evaluate the gravity of different crimes and to make judgments among different penological approaches. (Harmelin v. Michigan [(1991)] 501 U.S. [957,] 998 (conc. opn. of Kennedy, J.); People v. Dillon [(1983)] 34 Cal.3d [441,] 477.) Only in the rarest of cases could a court declare that the length of a sentence mandated by the Legislature is unconstitutionally excessive. (People v. Weddle [(1991)] 1 Cal.App.4th [1190,] 1196–1197; People v. Mora (1995) 39 Cal.App.4th 607, 615–616.)” (People v. Martinez (1999) 76 Cal.App.4th 489, 494.) Palmer presented a different question.
A sentence must be invalidated as unconstitutional under the California Constitution if it is “ ‘ “grossly disproportionate to the defendant’s individual culpability” ’ ” (People v. Leonard (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1370, 1427 (Leonard), quoting People v. Dillon, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 479 (Dillon)) or “ ‘ “ ‘shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity.’ ” ’ ” (People v. Hines (1997) 15 Cal.4th 997, 1078.) Pursuant to the three techniques described in In re Lynch (1972) 8 Cal.3d 410, “[a] petitioner attacking his sentence as cruel or unusual must demonstrate his punishment is disproportionate in light of (1) the nature of the offense and defendant’s background, (2) the punishment for more serious offenses, or (3) punishment for similar offenses in other jurisdictions.” (In re Nunez (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 709, 725.) Courts examine the “ ‘nature of the offense and/or the offender, with particular regard to the degree of danger both present to society.’ ” (Dillon, supra, 34 Cal.3d at p. 479, supra, 8 Cal3d at p. 479.) We must consider “not only the offense in the abstract . . . but also ‘the facts of the crime in question’ ” (Dillon, at p. 479, quoting In re Foss (1974) 10 Cal.3d 910, 919), “ ‘including its motive, the extent of the defendant’s involvement in the crime, the manner in which the crime was committed, and the consequences of the defendant’s acts.’ ” (Leonard, supra, 40 Cal.4th at p. 1426, quoting People v. Hines, supra, 15 Cal.4th at p. 1078.)
Our Supreme Court has recognized, however, that “even if sentenced to a life maximum term, no prisoner can be held for a period grossly disproportionate to his or her individual culpability for the commitment offense. Such excessive confinement . . . violates the cruel or unusual punishment clause (art. I, § 17) of the California Constitution.” (In re Dannenberg (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1061, 1096.) “The proportionality of a sentence turns entirely on the culpability of the offender as measured by “circumstances existing at the time of the offense.” (Rodriguez, supra, 14 Cal.3d at p. 652, italics added.) Where an inmate’s sentence is disproportionate to his or her individual culpability for the offense, the Supreme Court has acknowledged, “section 3041, subdivision (b) cannot authorize such an inmate’s retention, even for reasons of public safety, beyond the constitutional maximum period of confinement.” (Dannenberg, at p. 1096, citing Rodriguez, at pp. 646-656.) “[I]nmates may bring their claims directly to court through petitions for habeas corpus if they ‘believe, because of the particular circumstances of their crimes, that their confinements have become constitutionally excessive as a result.’ ” (Dannenberg at p. 1098.) I
Such challenges based on the length of prison time already served are rare: Most claims of constitutionally excessive punishment challenge sentences when first imposed, looking prospectively at the time the offender will serve. Such challenges rarely succeed, as courts generally defer to determinations of the punishments appropriate to particular offenses made by legislative representatives of the People. Indeterminately sentenced inmates, however, serve terms whose length is fixed not by the Legislature but by the decisions of the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) as to whether and when the prisoner has become “suitable” for release on parole.
As was seen, the serial denials of parole Palmer experienced resulted in punishment so disproportionate to his individual culpability for the offense he committed, that it was be deemed constitutionally excessive.
Palmer was released from prison without parole.
Robert Rodriguez has represented defendants in dozens of misdemeanor and felony criminal matters including bank robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary, motor vehicle theft, grand theft, felony driving under the influence, felony domestic violence, felony drug possession and sales, 3-Strikes cases, criminal appeals, juvenile criminal court, and matters under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA).
* Disclaimer – Robert Rodriguez is licensed to practice only in the State of California & this analysis is applied only under State of California law. Robert D. Rodriguez is also admitted to practice in the U.S. District Courts, Central, Northern & Eastern Districts of California. Robert Rodriguez has practiced in the State of California Court of Appeal.