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.

It is amazing that just a few months ago, a defendant with two prior felony drug possessions in state court, and currently charged with drug distribution in federal court, faced a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.  Now he can have those California priors reduced to misdemeanors, and then dismissed, so that, under certain circumstances, they can no longer be used to enhance the federal sentence.  Generally, convictions that are set-aside for reasons not involving innocence or errors of law will still result in criminal history points.  Counsel might argue in resentencing that the reduction from felony to misdemeanor supports a finding that the conviction over-represents the defendant’s criminal history.

People whose federal sentences were enhanced in the past by crimes that are now misdemeanors under state law may be able to seek relief, after their state convictions are set aside. Custis v. United States, 511 U.S. 485, 497 (1994).    Johnson v. United States, 544 U.S. 295, 303 (2005), cited both Custis and Daniels v. United States, 532 U.S. 374, 381 (2001), for the proposition that “a defendant given a sentence enhanced for a prior conviction is entitled to a reduction if the earlier conviction is vacated.”

Finally, Prop 47 may offer support to those seeking clemency.  When a person’s record of multiple felonies is suddenly transformed into multiple misdemeanors, the case for commutation of sentence becomes even more convincing.

The Proposition provides relief to anyone convicted in the past of a wide range of property and drug crimes, as long as the person does not have a “disqualifying prior.”  Disqualifying priors include offenses requiring sex offender registration, and specified violent offenses.  For example, the crime of 2nd degree burglary/commercial burglary where the value of the property did not exceed $950, becomes a new misdemeanor called “shoplifting.”   If the value of a forgery or theft involves less than $950, the crime becomes a misdemeanor.  Similar treatment is given to felony insufficient check funds convictions, and receiving stolen property.  Simple possession of heroin, “concentrated cannabis,” and methamphetamine, once charged as felonies, are now misdemeanors.

Simply by going to court to have their felony charges converted to misdemeanors, people can end up with a criminal record that looks very different, and has a very different effect.

There are a huge number of eligible Proposition 47 cases out there.  For example, by the Friday following the November 4th election, San Diego County Public Defenders had submitted nearly 5000 petitions for conversion of felonies to misdemeanors.  There are a lot of resources already on the web, for example  More will doubtless be appearing in the days ahead.

(Ed. Note:  The impact of Prop 47 in the civil context, notably on employment and licensing opportunities, and on immigration status, will be the subject of Part II of this article.) 

Jeffrey A. Aaron

Jeffrey A. Aaron is Directing Attorney with the Federal Public Defender, Central District of California,  Eastern Division.

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