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May 30, 2006

Major California Supreme Court decision on the "prior conviction" exception

Thanks to this post at Criminal Appeal, I see that last week I missed a major ruling from the California Supreme Court about the scope of the "prior conviction" exception.  Last Monday, the California Supreme Court in People v. McGee, No. S123474 (Cal. May 22, 2006) (available here) issued a long opinion that essentially holds that there is no jury trial right on the nature of a prior conviction.  Here is how Jonathan Soglin astutely summarizes the McGee ruling:

In this case, the particular question was whether two Nevada robberies qualified as robberies under California law and, thus, were strikes under the Three Strikes Law.  The Court of Appeal had read the SCOTUS Almendarez-Torres exception to the right to a jury trial for prior conviction allegations to apply narrowly only to the mere fact of the prior conviction.  In a 5-2 decision, Chief Justice George disagreed, declining to read Almendarez-Torres so narrowly.  He recognized that the SCOTUS decision last year in Shepard v. U.S. read the prior-conviction exception narrowly, but he found that not controlling because Shepard was decide on statutory grounds, invoking the doctrine of avoiding constitutional doubt.

Though I have argued in my Conceptualizing Blakely article that the "prior conviction" exception ought to be broadly interpreted, extant Supreme Court jurisprudence does not fully support a broad reading of the exception.  Thus, I think the dissent by Justice Kennard in McGee gets in some good shots, starting with this opening sentiment:

Because in Apprendi, the high court itself has cast doubt on the continuing vitality of the "fact of a prior conviction" exception to the jury trial requirement, this court should construe it narrowly. Instead, the majority reads it broadly, applying it to this case even though the Apprendi court's justifications for the exception are inapplicable here.  According to the majority, it is proper for a trial court to deny a defendant a jury trial, with a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard of proof, not only on the fact of a prior conviction but also on the truth or falsity of factual allegations pertaining to the conduct that gave rise to a prior conviction, even though those allegations were not elements of the prior offense. I disagree.

May 30, 2006 at 04:44 PM | Permalink

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