Supreme Court strikes down California
By Julia Cheever, Bay City News Service
January 23, 2007
The U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in the case of a former Richmond
police officer convicted of abusing his son, declared Monday that
California's determinate sentencing law is unconstitutional.
The court said by a 6-3 vote that California's system of allowing
judges to increase sentences violates defendants' Sixth Amendment
constitutional right to a jury trial.
The decision was based on previous high court rulings in 2004
and 2005 that struck down Washington state and federal sentencing
schemes that allowed judges to decide to increase sentences.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "Because the determinate
sentencing law authorizes the judge, not the jury, to find the
facts permitting an upper term sentence, the system cannot withstand
measurement against our Sixth Amendment precedent."
The high court said it was up to California to decide how to
adjust its sentencing system, but noted that one option is to
allow juries to decide whether a sentence should be increased.
Ginsburg wrote that, "the ball . . . lies in California's
The court ruled in an appeal by former Richmond police officer
John Cunningham of San Pablo, who was sentenced by a Contra Costa
County Superior Court judge to an upper term of 16 years in prison
for abusing his son.
The trial judge found that aggravating factors including the
boy's vulnerability justified the higher sentence.
Peter Gold, Cunningham's lawyer in the appeal, said he expects
Cunningham to be re sentenced. He said he believes "a large
number" of California who received increased penalties will
also be re-sentenced.
Gold said the ruling "strongly reaffirms" the precedent
in the high court's earlier sentencing decisions.
A spokesman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown was not
immediately available for comment.
The determinate sentencing law, enacted in 1977, was intended
to reform the state's previous indeterminate sentencing, in which
judges gave open-ended prison terms and the state parole board
determined the amount of time a convict spent in prison.
For most felonies, the determinate law prescribes a lower, middle
and upper term and the judge decides which term to impose after
considering aggravating and mitigating circumstances.
For Cunningham's conviction for continuous sexual abuse of a
child under 14, the possible terms were six, 12 or 16 years in
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