Ryan Garrett drives a red BMW to a QuikStop convenience store at 2:00 a.m., grabs a number of gift cards, and approaches the register. He's got a wallet belonging to Julie Skelton and a credit card that bears her name. Before he can make the purchase, however, he spots some police officers, who have an arrest warrant for Mr. Garrett, who've been looking for him (and his red BMW), and who have just rolled up on the QuickStop. Mr. Garrett ditches the wallet and credit card in the trash can, looks to get out of the QuickStop through a back door, but is ultimately arrested.
The wallet and credit card were stolen from Julie Skelton's car. In Mr. Garrett's BMW "police found three canisters of pepper spray, a large pair of
metal bolt cutters, and a punch tool for breaking windows." On Mr. Garrett's cell phone "the police found text messages discussing the sale of a $300 Macy’s gift card for cash or drugs." On Mr. Garrett "police found a half-gram of heroin."
Needless to say, Mr. Garrett gets charged with a series of crimes. Rightly so. "On March 5, 2014, the prosecution charged defendant by information with six
counts: Count One—Commercial burglary (Pen. Code, § 459); Count Two—Receiving
stolen property (Pen. Code, § 496, subd. (a)); Count Three—Possession of heroin (Health
& Saf. Code, § 11350, subd. (a)); Count Four—Misdemeanor identity theft (Pen. Code, §
530.5, subd. (c)(1)); Count Five—Possession of burglary tools (Pen. Code, § 466); and
Count Six—Possession of tear gas by a felon (Pen. Code, § 22810, subd. (a))."
The case gets resolved like you think it would. Especially since they've got Mr. Garrett largely dead to rights. He's a felon, so he's got a prior strike. So they pick a charge, let him plead to it, and then negotiate a sentence. "On June 12, 2014, defendant
pleaded no contest to Count One (commercial burglary) and admitted the strike allegation
in exchange for 32 months in state prison and dismissal of the remaining counts."
One might argue whether two and a half years is the appropriate sentence for Mr. Garrett. Maybe it's too short. Maybe it's too long. But it's a deal. He gets 32 months. Off to prison he goes to serve his time.
But not so fast.
Because two weeks after Mr. Garrett pleads guilty, initiative supporters turn in enough signatures to get Prop. 47 on the ballot. And, that November, they pass the thing. At which point Mr. Garrett promptly moves to be released.
He says that the crime he actually pled to -- Count One -- was in fact shoplifting. (with the value of the gift cards around $50). And that's a misdemeanor. Hence he's eligible for resentencing under Prop. 47. Sure, he was charged with other crimes. But he wasn't convicted of those. He solely pled guilty to the one charge, which was admittedly charged as a felony, but was actually a misdemeanor, so he's eligible for relief.
The Court of Appeal agrees. Reverses and remands.
The Court of Appeal's reasoning is fairly solid. I don't have a huge problem with that. The rules and laws appear to indeed be what Justice Marquez says they are.
Yet there's still something about this case -- and presumably others like it -- that bothers me.
I think what's gnawing at me is that this was a deal. It was essentially random which count people like Mr. Garrett plead to. Sure, they want to plead to the facially least serious count. But what the prosecutor really cares about -- understandably enough -- is the sentence. So as long as the guy gets 32 months, in truth, the deal's probably based a lot on some more serious charges (e.g., possession of tear gas by a felon), but if he wants to plea down to burglary/shoplifting, that's fine. As long as the guy does the 32 months.
But then along comes Prop. 47. Which upends things. If the prosecutor knew about that pending initiative, and its potential application, no way this deal gets made. They'd make Mr. Garrett plead to a more serious charge, one to which Prop. 47 clearly doesn't apply. Of that I'm certain. So it seems somewhat untoward -- random, even -- that Mr. Garrett doesn't have to serve the sentence to which he agreed merely because of the happenstance of the particular charge that was selected for the plea. My reaction is also especially strong in the present case because of the very short time between when the plea was taken (June) and when the initiative qualified for the ballot (later than month) and passed (in November). If the timing was just a little bit different, no way Mr. Garrett gets relief, since there's no way the prosecutor would have made this particular deal. S/he would instead have insisted on a plea to a more serious charge, and Mr. Garrett would have to do the full 32 months (minus, of course, the various good time credits, etc.).
I understand that, in other cases, the Court of Appeal has held that Prop. 47 is indeed retroactive, that it applies to negotiated pleas as well as convictions after trial, etc. All of that seems fine to me.
But there's nonetheless something about this particular cases -- and ones like it -- that still seems to me to be wrong. If only because I feel confident that voters (including me) who voted for Prop. 47 may not have intended for people who in fact may have committed "serious" crimes, but who just-so-happened to plea to a lesser crime in turn for a particular negotiated sentence, to get relief. There's an element of randomness here that just doesn't seem right. Or intended.
In this particular case, admittedly, maybe everything turns out "okay" in the end, due to intended and/or unintended consequences of the system. For example, here, the Court of Appeal remands for further consideration of whether Mr. Garrett is ineligible for Prop. 47 relief because he's a danger to society. Okay. If he is, then yeah, he does the full 32 months. Moreover, even if he's not a danger, the reality is that Mr. Garrett is likely to serve all (or nearly) all of his original sentence anyway. He pled guilty in June of 2014, so presumably has been in prison since then. His Prop. 47 petition was denied in the trial court, and his appeal took the usual amount of time. so it's only now that he is potentially eligible for relief. And there's still time for the state to petition for review, the necessary Prop. 47 proceedings on remand, etc. The net result of all of which is that Mr. Garrett will almost certainly end of being in prison from 2014 to 2017 -- essentially, is full sentence.
But that particularized randomness (and potential injustice) hardly makes up for the systemic randomness (and potential injustice) of the underlying holding here. Maybe it eventually "works out" for Mr. Garrett in some cosmic sense of karma: he may end up having to serve his full time anyway. But other people may end up spending too long, or getting out too early, in analogous settings. The application of Prop. 47 in some of these cases just doesn't seem to me like it was necessarily how the voters intended.
That happens sometimes with statutes as well, of course. And text matters. Still. There's something about cases -- or at least situations -- like these that seems a bit off. At a very minimum, that it's not the best of all possible worlds.