California Appeals Court Clarifies Which Prisoners Can Ask for Shorter Sentences

January 29, 2014

A state appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that three-strikes inmates serving life in prison for being armed cannot ask for shorter sentences under a 2012 ballot initiative that softened the state's tough sentencing law.

The published opinion provides at least a temporary measure of clarity to a thorny legal issue that has led judges around the state to hand down conflicting decisions on whether prisoners given life terms for gun possession can qualify for shorter sentences.

The decision also deals a blow to many of the more than 280 third-strikers serving at least 25 years to life for firearms possession who hope to qualify for shorter sentences under Proposition 36. The voter initiative allowed most inmates serving life terms for relatively minor third strikes to ask courts to resentence them to shorter prison terms. But the measure excluded inmates who carried a firearm or deadly weapon during the commission of their last crime.

Lawyers representing inmates with gun-possession third strikes have argued that courts should accept their resentencing requests and reduce the prison terms for those who do not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.

In deciding the issue, the three-judge panel of the fourth appellate district rejected an appeal by Mark Anthony White, who was convicted of possessing a firearm in San Diego County.

The justices concluded that third-strikers are disqualified from seeking shorter sentences if they were armed but left open the door for prisoners who did not have ready access to a gun at the time they were legally in possession of a firearm. Keeping a firearm in storage, for example, or giving a gun to a friend for safekeeping can be considered weapon possession.

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