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Sex Offenders Who Fail to Register May Receive Life Sentence Under California’s “Three Strikes” Law

The California Supreme Court has held that, depending on the specifics of the underlying offense, failure to register as a sex offender may subject a defendant with two qualifying prior serious and/or violent convictions to a sentence of 25 years to life under the state’s infamous “Three Strikes” law.

Convicted sex offender Willie Clifford Coley was sentenced to a term of 25 years to life in prison for failing to update his registration within five days of his birthday in 2001. Several years later, in a case involving another sex offender convicted of the same offense, a divided panel of the California Court of Appeal held that the imposition of a 25-years-to-life sentence for this “most technical and harmless violation of the registration law” was grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense and hence violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. See: People v. Carmony 127 Cal.App.4th 1066 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2005).

Based on this later ruling, Coley filed a habeas petition alleging that his conviction was unconstitutional based on the same grounds. The Court of Appeal denied his petition, however, concluding that Carmony had been wrongly decided.

On review, the California Supreme Court found it unnecessary to determine whether Carmony was wrongly decided. Rather, it distinguished Coley’s conduct from that in Carmony; whereas the defendant in Carmony had “demonstrated a good faith attempt to comply with the sex offender registration law,” Coley, the Court found, had “knowingly and intentionally refused to comply with his [registration] obligations.” Because Coley was “still intentionally unwilling to comply with an important legal obligation,” his triggering criminal conduct (unlike the defendant in Carmony) “bore both a rational and substantial relationship to the antirecidivist purposes of the Three Strikes law.” Thus, Coley’s life sentence was affirmed. See: In re Coley, 55 Cal. 4th 524, 283 P.3d 1252 (Cal. 2012).

Note that under Prop. 36, enacted by California voters on November 6, 2012, the state’s Three Strikes law was revised to permit the imposition of a third-strike life sentence only when the third felony conviction is “serious or violent,” as defined by statute. Presumably, this change in state law may preclude third-strike life sentences for certain sex offenders who receive a third strike for failing to register. However, Prop. 36 also includes exceptions; for example, life sentences still may be imposed for non-serious, non-violent third-strike convictions if the offender has prior convictions for rape or child molestation. Thus, some sex offenders may still receive third-strike life sentences for failure to register if they have qualifying prior convictions.

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Related legal case

In re Coley