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Earlier this year, Assembly Member Alex Lee (D-San Jose) introduced AB 1509, named the Anti-Racism Sentencing Reform Act. If passed, the bill would drastically reduce the sentencing enhancements courts use to sentence those convicted of having a gun in their possession when they committed the underlying offense. Lee explains that the practical effect of the current sentencing enhancement laws has a disproportionate impact on People of Color, noting that 89 percent of those incarcerated based on these enhancements are People of Color.

How Do Sentencing Enhancements Work?

A sentencing enhancement is an increase in the maximum allowable punishment that is based on a certain fact. In the case of gun-sentencing enhancements, a person convicted of certain crimes will face a significantly longer sentence because they carried a gun when they committed the offense. However, sentencing enhancements are duplicative and unnecessary, as the law allows for a person who has a gun when committing another offense to be charged with the underlying offense as well as for possession of a gun. In other words, under the current state of the law, if you were to commit a robbery while carrying a gun, you would face robbery charges, gun charges, as well as a sentencing enhancement.

How Would AB 1509 Change Gun-Sentencing Enhancements?

If AB 1509 passes, it would significantly reduce—although not eliminate—the sentencing enhancements for those convicted of certain crimes while carrying or using a gun. For example, under the current framework, the sentencing enhancements are as follows:

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Senate Bill 1437, passed back in 2019, significantly changed how California homicide offenses were charged. More specifically, SB 1437 prohibited prosecutions for first- or second-degree murder for someone who was “not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.”

As a result of SB 1437’s passage, many defendants who were convicted of murder crimes were eligible to have their convictions reviewed by the court to determine if they were eligible for relief. However, there is a major gap in SB 1437, because it does not apply to those found guilty of California manslaughter offenses.

While, initially, it may seem like this makes sense, as those convicted of murder are likely serving much longer sentences, a recent article highlights the current inequities of SB 1437. The article describes the case of a man who was alleged to have been involved in a robbery of a brothel. Evidently, the defendant waited outside as his friend ran inside the brothel alone, shooting and killing one of the occupants.

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Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a California homicide case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to relief under SB 1437. However, the court held that, under California Supreme Court case law, a petition for relief under SB 1437 is not cognizable on appeal, and must first be filed with the trial court. The opinion illustrates the complexity of the procedural rules that govern post-conviction matters generally, but also especially those seeking relief under SB 1437.

Passed in 2017, SB 1437 is a criminal justice reform law that precludes the prosecution from pursuing first- or second-degree murder charges in certain situations. It also provides a mechanism for defendants to petition the court for a re-sentencing hearing, if they were convicted of an offense that they could no longer be convicted of. A re-sentencing under SB 1437 is available if the defendant meets each of the following elements:

  1. The charging document allowed the prosecution to pursue a conviction under a theory of first-degree felony murder or through the “natural and probable consequences” doctrine;
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For decades, criminal law was seen as a “one-way ratchet” in that, whenever changes were made to the criminal law, they almost always made the laws stricter. Typically, this is a function of high crime rates, and the political pressure lawmakers face from their constituents. Generally, lawmakers do not want to be seen as being “soft” on crime, so they continually propose increasingly strict laws to prove they mean business. However, California constitutional law provides citizens the ability to propose ballot initiatives. If someone can get enough signatures to support a ballot initiative, the entire state will vote on the initiative and, if it passes, it will become law. This is what happened with California’s Proposition 57.

Proposition 57, or Prop 57, as it is more commonly known, is a ballot initiative passed in 2016. Prop 57 implements broad criminal justice reform as it pertains to parole consideration and juvenile offenders. Proponents of Prop 57 emphasized that the continued incarceration of many inmates was not only overly harsh, but wasted tens of millions of dollars a year in valuable tax revenue.

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Under the terms of Prop 57, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must allow for defendants convicted of certain non-violent crimes to be considered for parole upon completing their sentence for the primary offense. Previously, various sentencing enhancements could keep someone in jail longer than their original sentence; for example, if they had committed multiple crimes against multiple victims. Prop 57 eliminates the requirement that defendants serve the enhanced portion of the sentence, allowing for earlier parole consideration.

The Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA, the “Act”) is a federal law that provides mandatory sentences for those convicted of possessing a gun after having previously been convicted of a violent felony offense. The ACCA was passed back in 1984, when gun violence was plaguing the country. Federal prosecutors in California regularly use the ACCA to obtain hefty sentences against defendants, even when the prior felony offenses occurred long in the past. Often, prosecutors will use a defendant’s potential exposure under the ACCA to coerce them into accepting a plea deal.

However, since the passage of the ACCA, courts across the country have been inundated with cases, asking them to flesh out the details of what constitutes a “predicate offense” under the Act. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that every state defines its criminal laws differently, and what may be commonly considered a “violent felony,” may not have actually involved any allegations of violence. The specific definition of a “violent felony,” under the ACCA is any crime that “has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.”

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a case in which the defendant was charged under the ACCA. Evidently, the defendant was arrested after police found a gun in his car during a traffic top. The defendant pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession, and proceeded to sentencing. At sentencing, the prosecution claimed that the ACCA should apply, because the defendant was previously convicted of several “violent felonies” in Tennessee.

Police and prosecutors are eager to use anything they can to identify a suspect and obtain a conviction, especially in the most serious cases, such as California homicide crimes. However, often this comes at the expense of—rather than the pursuit of—justice.

For example, take a recent New York Times article discussing the use of facial recognition software. Racial recognition software relies on computers to recognize human faces. In the law enforcement context, this usually involves a police officer inputting a suspect’s photo into the program, which then searches through a database of thousands of photos, looking for a match. Police will occasionally use facial recognition software if they have surveillance video or a still-frame photo, but do not know who it is in the photo.

According to the New York Times article, the use of facial recognition software was used to arrest a man for a crime he did not commit. Evidently, police received a report of a man stealing candy. When police arrived on the scene, they found the suspect at a rental car agency, trying to get his rental extended. The suspect gave them an ID card, apologized, and offered to pay for the candy.

Last month, the California Supreme Court released its opinion in a case involving the defendant’s claim that he was entitled to a resentencing hearing under Senate Bill 1437 (SB 1437). The case illustrates the power of SB 1437, and what it means for those serving lengthy prison terms for California murder convictions.

The Facts

Back in 2014, the defendant was arrested for murder. The prosecution and defense offered very different versions of the events leading up to the victim’s death. According to the defense, a woman told the defendant that the victim had been raping her. At this point, the defendant punched the victim in the face, and the woman began attacking the victim with what the defendant thought was a sledgehammer. The defendant denies ever using a weapon to strike the victim, who later died. The defendant’s DNA was found on cigarette butts at the scene.

The defendant was arrested for first-degree murder, based largely on the woman’s testimony. He was convicted, but that conviction was later reduced to a second-degree murder conviction based on his initial appeal. However, after the passage of SB 1437, the defendant filed a post-conviction motion, asking the court to vacate his sentence for second-degree murder.

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Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion in an inmate’s claim that the conditions in which he was housed violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. While the case arose out of a federal prison in Texas, it illustrates the prison conditions throughout state and federal prisons in California. The opinion was a welcome step towards the High Court recognizing the inhumane conditions many men and women face after being convicted of a serious crime.

The Facts of the Case

In the case, the petitioner, Trent Taylor, was convicted of armed robbery and given a sentence of 11 years’ incarceration. While he was serving his sentence at a federal prison, Taylor alleged that prison staff kept him in unsanitary conditions that violated his rights under the Eighth Amendment.

On December 7, 2020, George Gascon was sworn in as the new District Attorney, defeating the previous District Attorney, Jackie Lacey. With his swearing in comes sweeping reforms and promises to re-open thousands of old cases. In his sweeping reforms, Mr. Gascon provides for retroactive applications, removing gun enhancements, gang enhancements, Three Strikes Law and materially changing juvenile laws.

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Traditionally, reforms are non-retroactive, meaning they do not apply to prior judgments or convictions. However, in Mr. Gascon’s sweeping reform, his office is now applying these reforms retroactively. That means that many of the new changes will affect old convictions from the past, regardless of when they took place.

In this post, Attorney Matthew Barhoma, founder of Barhoma Law, P.C. and California Criminal Appeals Attorney highlights the new changes and outlines how they will affect general cases. To learn how District Attorney, George Gascon’s, sweeping reform may affect your case, please consult with a Criminal Appeals and Post Conviction attorney with Barhoma Law, P.C. by calling our firm at 213-800-7664.

Celebrities have a lot of sway. They are frequently on television, and many of them have hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of followers on social media. In Kim Kardashian’s case, more than 67 million followers. Over the years, Kardashian has used her platform to advocate for criminal justice reform generally, as well as speaking out about specific injustices she sees in the system.

kim-kardashian-trump-300x200Kardashian’s most recent efforts relate to the scheduled execution of Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old man who the government plans to execute on December 10, 2020. Bernard was arrested and charged with murder in what the prosecution described as a gang-related killing. Evidently, back in 1999, when Bernard was just 18 years old, he and several of his associates approached a vehicle with a couple inside. One of Bernard’s associates shot at the couple inside the car, and then Bernard lit the car on fire. One of the victims died of a gunshot wound and the other of smoke inhalation. Bernard was convicted in a Texas court and sentenced to die. He exhausted his appeals and post-conviction remedies, and is scheduled to be executed this month. According to Bernard, he lit the car on fire when his co-defendant held a gun to his head. As such, it was questionable to what extent he was involved.

Upon hearing about the case, Kardashian reached out to her millions of Twitter followers, asking them to sign a petition urging President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison. Kardashian explained in a November 29th tweet, “while Brandon did participate in this crime, his role was minor compared to that of the other teens involved, two of whom are home from prison now.” She went on to explain that the crime was horrible, but that Bernard’s trial attorney failed to present important mitigating information that may have impacted the jury’s decision to render a death sentence. For example, the jury never heard that Bernard grew up in an abusive home, that his father left him to fend for himself on the streets, and that he was remorseful for his role in the killings. Kardashian also pointed out that the jury did not hear evidence regarding how Bernard’s brain was still developing when he participated in the crime.

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