Friday, March 04, 2005

Reyes v. Brown (9th Cir. - March 4, 2005)

What's the appropriate and constitutional penalty for Santos Reyes in this case? He goes to the DMV and fills out a driver's license application for his cousin, who can't read and hence won't be able to pass the written test. Reyes pretends to be his cousin, takes the test, and is caught. Because the application Reyes filled out was technically under penalty of perjury, he's convicted of perjury, a felony. (Signing someone else's name on a driver's license application is a misdemenor, but he's charged with the felony perjury count instead.)

Probation? A year in prison? The prosecution offers him a plea of four years in jail. He refuses, goes to trial, is convicted, and gets sentenced under the Three Strikes law. To 26 years to life.

Reyes contends that this sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. He loses in the California courts and brings a federal habeas petition. Judges Pregerson and Fisher find the claim plausible and vote to remand the petition for further review of the factual circumstances of Reyes' prior offenses. Judge Tallman finds the petition utterly meritless and "DISSENT[s] from this futile remand."

Whatever one thinks about the Three Strikes laws, it's got to be troubling to sentence a man to life in prison for trying to get his cousin a driver's license. And the fact that they offered Reyes a four year deal, and yet he ends up serving 26 to life, is also troubling. The offer strongly suggests to me that Reyes doesn't deserve to die in prison; that even the prosecutor thought that a lesser sentence was enough. You hate to see a man's life be decided by the determinate spinning of a heartless, mechanistic roulette wheel.