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California Supreme Court Announces Sentencing Law Changes Apply Until Revocation Sentence Becomes Final

The Supreme Court of California announced an extension of its prior rule of when to allow application of an amended sentencing statute, such that it may be applied to a defendant’s sentence still under appeal even though that sentence resulted when his probation was revoked.

In November 2014, Douglas Edward McKenzie pleaded guilty in Medera County district court to a number of drug-related offenses. Under Health and Safety Code, former § 11370.2, each of his four previous drug offenses qualified him for an extra three consecutive years in prison per offense. However, the district court imposed a five-year probationary period and a suspended imposition of sentence.

In March 2016, after several alleged probation violations, McKenzie’s probation was revoked, and the court imposed a prison sentence that included 12 years of enhancements for his priors. McKenzie then appealed.

While awaiting review, California passed a bill that eliminated the enhanced penalties for drug-related priors. The California Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeal to determine if McKenzie qualified for the reduction, and it found he did. The People appealed, and the Supreme Court granted review.

The People argued that § 1237 of the Penal Code, subdivision (a), provides in relevant part that a defendant may appeal “from a final judgement of conviction” and that “an order granting probation ... shall be deemed to be a final judgement within the meaning of this section.” Thus, McKenzie’s sentence became final when he failed to appeal the original sentence of probation, which precluded him from being granted relief from the amended statute.

The Supreme Court noted from In re Estrada, 408 P.2d 948 (Cal. 1965), “If the amendatory statute lessening punishment becomes effective prior to the date the judgement of conviction becomes final then ... it, and not the old statute in effect when the prohibited act was committed, applies.” Estrada involved statutory amendments that reduced sanctions for violations, and the Supreme Court later extended this reasoning to include situations where the Legislature eliminated the sanctions entirely in People v. Rossi, 555 P.2d 1313 (Cal. 1976).

Recently, in People v. Chavez, 415 P.3d 7070 (Cal. 2018), the Supreme Court ruled that a defendant’s case may be dismissed under Penal Code § 1385 at any time prior to the expiration of his probationary term but not after. This case noted that § 1237 grants an additional right to appeal the imposition of probation (and any issues arising prior to this point) but does not make the conviction “final.” It “is deemed to be a final judgement for the limited purpose of taking an appeal therefrom” and “does not have the effect of a judgement for other purposes.” People v. Superior Court (Giran), 523 P.2d 636 (Cal. 1974).

For these reasons, the Court concluded that McKenzie’s prison sentence, which was imposed when his probation was revoked, was not yet final when the amendatory statute was passed. Contrary to the People’s assertion, it did not become final when he failed to appeal the imposition of his probation.

Further, the Court noted that the legislative history supported this application because the Legislature stated the “sentence enhancement for prior drug convictions” was an “extreme punishment” that had “failed to” achieve the goals of “protect[ing] communities [and] reduc[ing] the availability of drugs….” Assem. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Sen. Bill No. 180 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) June 27, 2017, p. 4.

Thus, the Court held that where a defendant is on appeal from the imposition of a prison sentence after having his probation revoked, as was the case for Douglas Edward McKenzie, he may benefit from any amendatory statutes that reduce or eliminate his punishment.

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Related legal case

People v. McKenzie



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