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U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Megan's Laws, Three-Strikes

March 06, 2003|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld two of the most popular tough-on-crime laws of the 1990s: California's three-strikes law that sends repeat offenders to prison for life and Megan's laws, which alert the public to sex offenders who have been released from prison.

Career criminals and sex offenders pose special dangers, the high court said, and the government is entitled to take extraordinary measures to protect the public from them.

The highly publicized murders of two young girls -- Polly Klaas in California and Megan Kanka in New Jersey -- outraged the public and triggered the wave of new state laws.

The notion that criminals could be rehabilitated, and past crimes forgiven, was swept aside in favor of harsher measures.

The Klaas murder led to the much-copied California law that denies parole to repeat offenders, while the Kanka slaying gave parents and the general public a new right to learn of sex offenders who may have moved into their neighborhoods.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
Three strikes: An article in Thursday's Section A on the Supreme Court decision upholding California's three-strikes law incorrectly included Orange County among the jurisdictions that do not use a petty theft as a third strike. A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office says prosecutors weigh the defendant's record in each case before deciding whether to charge a petty crime as a felony third strike.

In their rulings Wednesday, the court rejected constitutional challenges from those who said the laws go too far in some instances.

It is not unduly harsh to send thieves and petty criminals to prison for the rest of their lives, the justices said in a pair of 5-4 rulings that upheld the three-strikes law.

And states may require former sex criminals to have their names, addresses and photographs posted on the Internet, even if they are no longer dangerous and their crimes took place long ago, the court said in another pair of rulings that upheld Megan's laws.

Those who believe these laws are unfair should take their complaints to the Legislatures that passed them, not to the federal courts, said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a former Arizona legislator.

"We do not sit as a 'superlegislature' to second-guess these policy choices," she said, speaking for a 5-4 majority.

Three of the decisions overturned liberal rulings by federal judges in California and New York that had put limits on the laws. The fourth affirmed a ruling by a California state court that brushed aside a challenge to the three-strikes law as cruel and unusual punishment.

The 1993 murder of 12-year-old Klaas by Richard Allen Davis, a paroled kidnapper, galvanized public support to scrap a policy of leniency toward repeat offenders, the court noted.

Davis served only half of a 16-year sentence. Had he served the full sentence, "he would still have been in prison on the day that Polly Klaas was kidnapped," O'Connor said.

A year later, California voters and the Legislature passed versions of the three-strikes law with the intent of keeping "serious" and "violent" criminals behind bars. Since then, 25 states and the federal government adopted similar measures.

These laws "effected a sea change in criminal sentencing through the nation (and) targeted the class of offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety: career criminals," O'Connor said.

But California's law had an unusual quirk. It allowed prosecutors to charge a minor offense as a serious felony if the criminal had other convictions on his record.

In 1995, Leandro Andrade, an Army veteran and a heroin addict, was arrested for shoplifting five videotapes valued at $84.70 from a Kmart in Ontario. Two weeks later, he went to a different Kmart in Montclair, Calif., and stole four videotapes. And again, he was caught before leaving the parking lot.

He pleaded guilty to the petty thefts. But prosecutors in San Bernardino County noted that he had two burglary convictions in 1982 and convictions for selling marijuana in 1988 and 1990.

Under California's law, the two petty thefts could be charged as a third and fourth strike against Andrade, and the 37-year-old was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said the sentence -- life in prison for petty theft -- was grossly disproportionate to the crime and was therefore cruel and unusual punishment.

Judge Richard Paez, a President Clinton appointee to the 9th Circuit, said the decision did not strike down the three-strikes law but only limited its use in the "unusual circumstances" of a petty theft that triggered the life term.

State officials say 344 inmates are serving long prison terms for a third strike that was a petty theft.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer appealed, and the high court reversed the 9th Circuit's decision in Lockyer vs. Andrade.

O'Connor stressed that a criminal's entire record should be weighed, not just the third strike that sent him away.

Regarding Andrade, she said this is not "the extraordinary case" of a punishment that is grossly disproportionate. Indeed, the 9th Circuit should not even have taken up Andrade's federal appeal since the California courts properly rejected it, she said.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed.

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