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December 24, 2016

Louisiana appeals court find LWOP sentence unconstitutionally excessive for fourth minor offense

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Appeals court vacates 'unconscionable' life sentence for New Orleans man over theft of $15 from 'bait vehicle'," this past week brought a notable state constitutional ruling from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Here are the basics from the press report:

Walter Johnson was walking down a street in Uptown New Orleans a week before Thanksgiving in 2013 when he noticed a Jeep Cherokee with the driver's side window down.  He glanced inside and saw a laptop and $15 in cash -- a $10 bill and a $5. Johnson snatched the bills.  He left the computer.

As it turns out, the Jeep was a law enforcement "bait vehicle," and Johnson was the catch of the day.  He was found guilty of simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen things at a trial in April 2015, and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office promptly invoked the state's habitual-offender law.

Johnson, who had prior convictions for simple burglary, heroin possession and cocaine distribution, was deemed a four-time felon.  Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him in October 2015 to a mandatory life prison term with no parole.

But on Wednesday, an appeals court panel threw out Johnson's life sentence, finding his street heist "shockingly minor in nature," the amount "extraordinary in its triviality" and Johnson's life sentence an "unconscionable" punishment that "shocks our sense of justice."  The appeals court sent the case back to Herman, telling her to resentence Johnson "to a term that is not unconstitutionally excessive."

The 10-page opinion, written by 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Paul Bonin, marks the latest bid to limit the discretion that state law grants prosecutors to ratchet up sentences for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals with multiple convictions.

Judges have little control over such decisions, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has been loath to step on the Legislature's toes by overriding one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws.  The state's high court has ruled that departures below the law's mandatory minimum sentences must be limited to "exceedingly rare" cases.

But occasionally it has seen fit to do so. Last year, for instance, the Supreme Court found a 30-year sentence "unconscionable" for Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old New Orleans woman who was found with a crack pipe tucked in her bra. Yet in the case of Bernard Noble, a father of seven who was found with the equivalent of two joints of marijuana, the court found he wasn't unusual enough to allow a sentence below the mandatory 13-year minimum under the statute.

Both of those cases, as well as Johnson's, came out of Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro employs the habitual-offender law far more than any other prosecutor in the state. In 2015, Cannizzaro's office sent 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute — almost one of every four offenders who were shipped to state prisons from New Orleans that year, according to state data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said in explaining the office's penchant for deploying the statute. "If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."

The full majority ruling in Louisiana v. Johnson is available at this link.  Notably, the rule s based on the Louisiana state constitutional provision prohibiting "cruel, excessive, or unusual punishment." La. Const. art. 1, § 20. Here is one notable passage (with some cites removed) from the Johnson decision: 

Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive.  Mr. Johnson reached into the open window of a bait-vehicle and took fifteen dollars.  He is now condemned to die in prison for that crime.

We acknowledge that Mr. Johnson's life sentence, under the habitual offender law, is intended as punishment not only the current conviction, but all prior convictions as well.  Legitimate sentencing goals notwithstanding, Mr. Johnson's status as a fourth felony offender "cannot be considered in the abstract."  Solem, 463 U.S. at 296.  As previously noted, the trial judge found that all his prior felonies were for nonviolent crimes.  And the instant offense, the one which set in motion the habitual offender proceedings, is shockingly minor in nature.  No person was harmed, nor any property damaged.  Had Mr. Johnson taken the fifteen dollars but not by entry into a vehicle or other structure listed in the simple burglary statute, he would have been convicted of misdemeanor theft.

December 24, 2016 at 12:45 PM | Permalink


The sentencing should depend on the person, not on the crime. Because criminals commit hundreds of crimes a year, because criminals do not specialize, because the system addresses one in 10 crimes, the conviction is an opportunity to incapacitate a busy criminal. The specific crime is nearly irrelevant.

Some murderers should be sent home. Some shoplifters should be executed. Catch a mass murdering drug lord littering. The death penalty is appropriate.

The doctrine of unconvicted conduct is a form of denial, as in denier conduct, as in 9/11 Truther, and should not be tolerated. Zero tolerance for denier lawyer doctrines. Repetitive conduct is a safety measure to prevent injustice and false positive errors. Claims of violations of the Sentencing Reform Act, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and the constitution are false lawyer excuse making. The primary conviction has justified individualized sentencing, and not ones based on robotic arithmetic formulas.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 24, 2016 4:51:21 PM

This is the sort of case that makes me wish we could give corporal punishment another try. I agree that LWOP is excessive in this instance, but I am also not convinced that any amount of confinement will make an appropriate impression. I could see a vigorous enough lashing however being something such offenders would very much work to avoid experiencing on a repeat basis.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Dec 24, 2016 9:14:17 PM

SH. You are correct. Cheap, immediate, can repeated as often as necessary. It would quickly end petty crime. No matter the prison sentence, it should be mandatory for all hackers and identity thieves.

Once the lash makes it back into the statutes, the first to get its benefit should be appellate judges who might find it unconstitutional. To deter.

Posted by: David Behar | Dec 24, 2016 9:59:32 PM

Supremacy Claus returns!
It's a Christmas Miracle!

Posted by: USPO | Dec 25, 2016 1:26:59 AM

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