California Supreme Court: Juvenile Adjudications May Be Used As “Strikes”

The California Supreme Court ruled on July 2, 2009 that juvenile felony adjudications count as “strikes” under the state’s Three Strikes Law, even though juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial.

PJDC joined in an amicus brief in the case, People v. Nguyen, urging the court to find that the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution prohibit the use of past juvenile adjudications to determine sentencing enhancements in adult cases.

Download PJDC’s Nguyen amicus curiae brief.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s article about the decision is below:

State high court: Juvenile crimes are ‘strikes’

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, July 3, 2009

(07-02) 17:22 PDT — A judge can sentence an adult felon to life in prison under California’s “three strikes” law because of past convictions in juvenile court, where there are no jury trials, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The 6-1 ruling in a San Jose case overturned a lower-court decision that would have excluded juvenile convictions as strikes because the findings of guilt are made by a judge rather than a jury. Numerous prisoners serving terms under the nation’s toughest sentencing law for repeat offenders could have been affected had the Supreme Court upheld the lower-court ruling.

Three strikes, passed by the Legislature in 1994 and approved by the voters later that year, requires a sentence of 25 years to life in prison for anyone convicted of a felony at age 18 or older who has committed at least two prior serious or violent felonies. If the felon has one such previous conviction, the normal sentence for the new crime is doubled.

Unlike most states with repeat-felon laws, California classifies convictions for serious or violent crimes in juvenile court, at age 16 or 17, as strikes. The law was challenged after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 in a New Jersey case that defendants are entitled to a jury trial on any facts used to lengthen their sentences beyond the usual maximum term.

The San Jose defendant, Vince Nguyen, admitted committing an aggravated assault in a 1999 juvenile court proceeding, when he was 16. In 2005, he pleaded no contest to being a felon in possession of a gun and was sentenced to 32 months in prison, twice the usual term, because of the strike on his record as a juvenile. He has completed that sentence.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court said the use of Nguyen’s juvenile conviction to increase his adult sentence did not violate his right to a jury trial. The court noted that Nguyen could have asked a jury in 2005 to determine whether he had been convicted of the 1999 assault, which would have required prosecutors to present records of the juvenile case.

Juveniles in California have “every substantial safeguard required in an adult criminal trial except the right to trial by jury,” including the right to be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, said Justice Marvin Baxter. He said the U.S. Supreme Court, despite its 2000 ruling, has allowed judges to increase sentences for repeat offenders.

Dissenting Justice Joyce Kennard contended the 2000 ruling prohibits increased sentences based on non-jury convictions in juvenile court. Nguyen’s lawyer, Douglas Rappaport, said he would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

“It seems that our California Supreme Court is more enamored with imposing punishment than with protecting our constitutional right to a jury trial,” Rappaport said. He said the ruling would make juvenile court proceedings more adversarial.