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California: 15% Work Credit Limitation Based on Stayed Violent Convictions Applies to Non-Violent Controlling Offense

The California Court of Appeal, Third District, ruled in April 2008 that when a prisoner receives multiple convictions arising from a single act, some of which qualify as “non-violent” while others qualify as “violent” or “serious,” the harsher 15% limitation on earned work credits attaching to violent or serious offenses must be applied to the non-violent offense when it is the controlling case and the violent/serious offenses are stayed. The ruling was upheld by the state Supreme Court in August 2010.

Nathan Pope was convicted of gross vehicular manslaughter while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, plus two counts of alcohol-related driving resulting in great bodily injury (GBI). Under California law, the vehicular manslaughter charge is not considered a violent felony (as defined in Penal Code § 667.5), but the GBI offenses are.

However, under Penal Code § 654, because all counts resulted from a single act, Pope could only be punished for the charge that carried the longest sentence, with the other counts stayed. This resulted in his being sentenced to 6 years on the non-violent vehicular manslaughter offense with the 5-year GBI convictions stayed.

When Pope entered the prison system, the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation noted that he had been convicted of the violent GBI charges and relied on Penal Code § 2933.1(a) to conclude that its 15% limitation on work credits attached to his non-violent controlling case because he had in fact been “convicted” of the (then stayed) violent offenses. Pope petitioned the superior court for habeas relief, relying on In re Phelon, 132 Cal.App.4th 1214 (Cal.App. 1 Dist. 2005) [See: PLN, June 2008, p.34].

Phelon held that when the convictions were kidnapping (non-violent) plus assault with intent to commit rape (violent), but the latter count was stayed because the former carried a longer sentence, the prisoner escaped the 15% work credit limitation imposed on violent convictions. The superior court followed Phelon and granted Pope’s habeas petition. The state appealed.

The Third District rejected Phelon, because in Pope’s case it produced absurd results. That is, since his 6-year controlling sentence would, according to Phelon, earn “halftime” credits (resulting in 3 years of incarceration), the effect of staying the lesser (but violent) terms of five years for GBI put Pope in the position of being rewarded for having injured his victims (i.e., 3 years is less than 4.2 years [5 years reduced by 15% work credits]).

Accordingly, the appellate court concluded that § 2933.1(a) created an exception to the stay provisions of § 654, and that § 2933.1(a)’s 15% work credit limitation applied to Pope’s 6-year non-violent controlling offense. See: In re Pope, 70 Cal.Rptr.3d 314 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2008).

The California Supreme Court granted review and affirmed the Third District on August 19, 2010, overruling In re Phe–lon and In re Gomez, 179 Cal.App.4th 1272, 102 Cal.Rptr.3d 221 (Cal.App. 4 Dist. 2009).

The Court acknowledged that in Pope’s case the exception created by § 2933.1(a) to § 654 would “lead to the anomalous result that his [prison] term may exceed what he would have served had he been convicted solely of the qualifying offenses.” However, the Supreme Court noted that “application of the complex statutory sentence-credit system to individual situations ‘“is likely to produce some incongruous results and arguable unfairness when compared to a theoretical state of perfect and equal justice.”’” See: In re Pope, 50 Cal.4th 777, 237 P.3d 552 (Cal. 2010).

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Related legal cases

In re Pope

In re Pope