Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Apprendi Win in Three Strikes Case

John Balazs, panel attorney in Sacramento and former Assistant Federal Defender in the Eastern District of California, won a significant victory this morning in Wilson v. Knowles, No. 07-17318. The Ninth Circuit held that the California courts violated Mr. Wilson's right to due process under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000). Mr. Wilson was convicted following trial of driving under the influence with a prior felony conviction. At sentencing, the state court judge concluded the conviction was his third strike under California's so-called "three strikes and you're out" law, and sentenced him to 25 years to life. In order to conclude that this was his third strike, the sentencing judge examined two prior convictions that stemmed from a single accident. In 1993, Mr. Wilson was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while driving under the influence of alcohol and causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of alcohol. The sentencing judge in the three-strikes case made three factual findings about those prior convictions -- none of which were necessary to the convictions -- that increased his sentence beyond the statutory maximum for driving under the influence witha prior felony conviction: (1) Mr. Wilson personally inflicted bodily injury on one of the car's passengers; (2) the injury was great; and, (3) the victim was not an accomplice.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Noonan and joined in by Judge Silverman, concluded that these findings did not fall within Apprendi's exception for prior convictions. "[T]he kinds of disputed facts at issue here -- such as the extent of the victim's injuries and how the accident occurred . . . are not historical, judicially noticeable facts; they require a jury's evaluation of witnesses and other evidence." Slip op. at 2410-11. The majority also concluded that the error was not harmless because "[n]o court could now look at the disputed facts about an accident seventeen years ago and conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Wilson would have been convicted of personally inflicting great bodily injury." Id. at 2411. Chief Judge Kozinski dissented, relying on the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act's limitation on federal habeas relief, because, in his view, the extent of Apprendi's prior conviction exception isn't "clearly established."

California law has numerous felony recidivist enhancements, so many prisoners, particularly those serving three strike sentences, may be able to take great advantage of Wilson.

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