California’s Proposition 47 and collateral consequences: Part I (sentencing consequences)

2000px-Flag_of_California.svgIn the general election on November 4, 2014, California voters approved Proposition 47 with almost 60% of the vote.  The Proposition will impact a wide range of sentences in California courts, and in the federal courts as well.  A number of crimes that could be, and often were, charged in California as felonies, such as commercial burglary, forgery, grand theft, and certain drug crimes, will now be charged as misdemeanors, so that their effect on a person’s criminal history will be substantially diminished.  A whole range of state felony drug offenses that could result in enhanced sentences in federal drug cases, even life imprisonment, or career offender status under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, have overnight become relatively harmless misdemeanors.

Significantly, Proposition 47 applies not only to persons who are currently “serving a sentence,” but also to those who have already fully served their sentences.  This means that thousands of people with California felony convictions can under certain circumstances petition to have their case recalled, the crime re-designated a misdemeanor, and be resentenced.  Once reduced to misdemeanors, qualifying crimes can be set aside under California Penal Code § 1203.4 (felony or misdemeanor cases sentenced to probation) or 1203.4a (misdemeanor cases sentenced to prison).  These provisions allow a defendant to withdraw his plea of guilty, enter a not guilty plea, and have the judge dismiss the case.  The record can then be expunged.

The importance of this retroactive effect of the new law cannot be over-estimated.  While Proposition 47 gained popular support as a way of reducing California’s prison population, its broadest and most significant long-term effect may be to reduce the impact of collateral consequences on people in the community.  For criminal defense lawyers, Proposition 47 offers a significant way to reduce a client’s exposure in subsequent prosecutions.

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