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Ewing v. United States

(2003)

Supreme Court of the United States - 538 U.S. 11

tl;dr:

A three strikes law mandating a minimum sentence that is grossly disproportionate to the crime that triggers the sentence does not violate due process.

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ICRAIssue, Conclusion, Rule, Analysis for Ewing v. United States

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Facts & HoldingEwing v. United States case brief facts & holding

Facts:The defendant was charged with grand larceny for stealing three...

Holding:The Court upheld the law and the sentence. The legislature...

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Ewing v. United States | Case Brief DeepDive
Majority opinion, author: Justice O’Connor
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The legal case concerns the constitutionality of California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, which imposes a 25-year-to-life sentence on repeat felons. The case involves the application of the law to "wobblers," offenses that can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, and whether prosecutors and trial courts have the discretion to charge or reduce a "wobbler" as either a felony or a misdemeanor under the three strikes law. The case also involves the authority of California trial courts to vacate allegations of prior "serious" or "violent" felony convictions, which allows the court to avoid imposing a three strikes sentence by reducing "wobblers" to misdemeanors or vacating allegations of prior serious or violent felony convictions. The defendant, Gary Ewing, was convicted of felony grand theft of personal property and had four prior serious or violent felony convictions, making him eligible for a three strikes sentence. Ewing requested the court to reduce the grand theft conviction to a misdemeanor and to dismiss some or all of his prior serious or violent felony convictions to avoid a three strikes sentence, but the trial court ruled against him. Ewing claimed that his sentence was grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment, but the California Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the decision, reasoning that enhanced sentences under recidivist statutes like the three strikes law serve the legitimate goal of deterring and incapacitating repeat offenders.

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Opinion (Concurrence), author: Justice Kennedy
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The Eighth Amendment's proportionality principle applies to non-capital sentences and forbids only extreme sentences that are "grossly disproportionate" to the crime. State legislatures have the power to enact three strikes laws, which target career criminals and provide for enhanced sentencing of repeat offenders. The California Legislature's decision to enact the three strikes law is a valid choice to protect public safety, as recidivism is a legitimate basis for increased punishment. The three strikes law was primarily targeting long-term habitual offenders with multiple felony convictions, regardless of the third strike. The Constitution does not mandate adoption of any one penological theory, and a sentence can have a variety of justifications. Selecting the sentencing rationales is generally a policy choice to be made by state legislatures, not federal courts.

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Opinion (Concurrence), author: Justice Scalia
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The passage discusses how the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" applies to disproportionate sentences. Justice Scalia argues that the Amendment prohibits specific modes of punishment, but not disproportionate sentences. This creates difficulty when considering rehabilitation and deterrence as well as the purpose of certain laws like California's three strikes law. The state's public-safety interest in deterring and incapacitating recidivist felons must be justified for a sentence to be proportional. The author agrees that the petitioner's sentence is not in violation of the Eighth Amendment and concurs with the judgment.

Opinion (Concurrence), author: Justice Thomas
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Justice Thomas concurs with the judgment that the petitioner's sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. He agrees with Justice Scalia that the proportionality test in Solem v. Helm is not applicable and that the Clause does not contain a proportionality principle. Therefore, he would not apply Solem's test even if it were clear.

Dissenting opinion, author: Justice Stevens
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The Eighth Amendment requires judges to assess the proportionality of all forms of punishment, including bail, fines, and other sanctions. Proportionality review is not only capable of judicial application but also required by the Eighth Amendment. Judges have the discretion to interpret the limits on sentencing authority imposed by the Eighth Amendment and must use their judgment to give meaning to broadly phrased constitutional protections. The Eighth Amendment's broad proportionality principle would prevent reliance on any justification for punishment to support a sentence that is disproportionate to the crime committed.

Dissenting opinion, author: Justice Breyer
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The Supreme Court found that Gary Ewing's "three strikes" sentence of at least 25 years without parole or good-time credits for stealing three golf clubs worth $1,197 violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The court applied Justice Kennedy's analytical framework in Harmelin and determined that Ewing's sentence is grossly disproportionate to his crime. Shoplifting is not a serious offense that requires lengthy prison terms for deterrence. Ewing's sentence is unusually harsh, and recidivists in California typically serve less time in prison. Comparing Ewing's sentence to similar cases in other jurisdictions and in California at other times shows that his sentence is virtually unique in its severity, outside the context of California's three strikes law. Therefore, Ewing's sentence is unconstitutional, and the case-by-case approach can offer guidance through example.

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