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3 Strikes Enhancement Can Only be Used Once, Court Rules

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 28, 2015 9:54 AM

California's three strikes law can lead to some complicated baseball. In general, the law is supposed to be fairly straightforward. Your second felony, or "strike," results in twice the term it would get if you didn't have a prior felony. If that second strike is for a serious felony, then five more years are added on. Thus, for second strikers, the court determines the base sentence, doubles it and adds on five more years.

Of course, real life isn't always that simple. In many cases, the second strike is a conviction for several offenses, with multiple terms. Does the serious felony enhancement apply to each term, meaning your five extra years can pile up to become extra decades? Not according a state Supreme Court decision last Thursday which held that the serious felony enhancement may be added only once as part of a second-strike sentence.

229 Years Was Just a Bit Too Long

Not that a shorter sentence will be too much help to Darren Darae Sasser, whose appeal lead to the ruling. Sasser had been sentenced to 495 years to life for nine rape-related counts. The court also imposed an alternative sentence of 229 years under the three strikes law. It sentenced Sasser to 25 years for each of two rape counts (one strike), then doubled the terms and added five years for all the remaining counts (strike two plus enhancements). It's this shorter, but still quite lengthy, sentence that Sasser argues was wrong.

As the Supreme Court noted, the calculation wasn't an easy one, involving four different statutory schemes governing sentencing. But it also wasn't the right one, since recidivist enhancements can be applied only once to determinate sentences.

Crime vs. Criminal, Determinate vs. Indeterminate Sentences

In explaining why the enhancement could not be applied to each count, the court looked to the reasons behind them. Where enhancements go to the nature of the offense, such as in extending sentences when a firearm is used or great injury inflicted, they may be added to every count. However, when they go to the nature of the offender, they "have nothing to do with the particular counts." Recidivist sentencing schemes such as the three strikes law fall directly into the latter category.

However, the California Supreme Court had previous ruled that enhancements could be applied to each count of a third strike sentence. Those, however, were indeterminate terms, allowing the court to differentiate them from the current case.

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