Thursday, August 13, 2009

People v. Neely (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 13, 2009)

Comparing cross-jurisdictional debates is sometimes enlightening. For example, for all of the high-profile commentary and precedent about the wisdom and validity of the federal sentencing guidelines, far too often overlooked is what happens in California. In which the sentencing regime is arguably equally (if not more) complicated, equally (if not more) determinate, and which has generated its own substantial debate.

For this reason, I was totally psyched for this opinion. Which Justice Perren begins (after a brief introduction) as follows:

"For over 30 years, opinions of the California Courts of Appeal have commented on the frustrating and needless complexity of the Determinate Sentencing Law (DSL). Reversals and remands for resentencing resulting from the misapplication of the DSL litter the pages of appellate decisions, both published and unpublished. [citations omitted] This is yet another such case to fall victim to the "labyrinthine procedures," [citation] of the "legislative monstrosity" [citation] whose "mind-numbingly complicated" [citation] statutes are "capable of ensnaring even its most erudite afficionados." [citation]"


I'm sure Justice Perren's right. That said, I also gotta say that he actually helps out a lot -- at least to the unenlightened masses such as myself -- by explaining this system. Indeed, he explains it so well that at the end, I was actually thinking to myself: "Wait. I can actually understand this. Cool!"

So I thought I'd share his description for the equally uninformed (with citations omitted):

"Section 1170.1 sets forth the sentencing protocol for felony offenses for which a determinate low, middle or upper term of incarceration is imposed. It also sets forth the rules for imposing a consecutive sentence through the designation of "principal" and "subordinate" terms. First, the trial court is required to select a base term--either the statutory low, middle or upper term--for each of the crimes. Second, if the court determines that a consecutive sentence is merited, it must designate the crime with the "greatest" selected base term as the principal term and the other crimes as subordinate terms. Third, the court sentences the defendant to the full base term it selected for the principal term crime and one-third of the middle term for any crimes for which the sentence is ordered to run consecutively. A subordinate term is one-third of the middle term even if the trial court had initially selected the lower or upper term as the base term.

Offenses for which an indeterminate sentence of life imprisonment or death can be imposed are not subject to section 1170.1. Consequently there are no principal and subordinate terms to be selected. The court simply imposes the statutory term of imprisonment for the indeterminate sentence crime which in this case is 25 years to life.

Once the court determines what sentence is to be imposed for the indeterminate term offenses and the determinate term offenses, it combines the two to reach an aggregate total sentence. Nothing in the sentencing for the determinate term crimes is affected by the sentence for the indeterminate term crime.

Such sentencing has been conceptualized as sentencing in separate boxes. Applying this "box" analogy to the instant case, the indeterminate term crime of first degree murder is placed in one box. The court imposes the required 25 years to life sentence and, in the same box, adds any enhancements to that sentence. The total sentence in the indeterminate term box is 25 years to life for the murder plus 10 years for the firearm enhancement.

A second box is created to include the three determinate sentence crimes. Applying section 1170.1, the court would select a base term for each of the crimes, set the crime with the greatest base term as the principal term, impose the full base term as the sentence for the principal term crime, and impose one-third of the middle term as a consecutive sentence for any subordinate term crimes. Should the court choose to run one or more of the determinate terms concurrently, it would impose the full selected base term and order it to be served concurrently with the principal term. In this case, the greatest base term was the four-year middle term selected for the drug crime. That crime would have been designated the principal term and received a full four-year sentence.

The consecutive sentence for the King attempted robbery would have been eight months (one-third of the two-year middle term).

After these calculations, the second box would be complete and contain the total sentence for all the determinate sentence crimes. The court would add the term of the second box to the term of the first box to arrive at the total aggregate sentence."

So there you have it. "California Sentencing In A Nutshell".