Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003)

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certiorari to the court of appeal of california, second appellate district

No. 01-6978. Argued November 5, 2002—Decided March 5, 2003

Under California's three strikes law, a defendant who is convicted of a felony and has previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies must receive an indeterminate life imprisonment term. Such a defendant becomes eligible for parole on a date calculated by reference to a minimum term, which, in this case, is 25 years. While on parole, petitioner Ewing was convicted of felony grand theft for stealing three golf clubs, worth $399 apiece. As required by the three strikes law, the prosecutor formally alleged, and the trial court found, that Ewing had been convicted previously of four serious or violent felonies. In sentencing him to 25 years to life, the court refused to exercise its discretion to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor—under a state law that permits certain offenses, known as "wobblers," to be classified as either misdemeanors or felonies—or to dismiss the allegations of some or all of his prior relevant convictions. The State Court of Appeal affirmed. Relying on Rummel v. Estelle, 445 U. S. 263, it rejected Ewing's claim that his sentence was grossly disproportionate under the Eighth Amendment and reasoned that enhanced sentences under the three strikes law served the State's legitimate goal of deterring and incapacitating repeat offenders. The State Supreme Court denied review.

Held: The judgment is affirmed.


Justice O'Connor, joined by The Chief Justice and Justice Kennedy, concluded that Ewing's sentence is not grossly disproportionate and therefore does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. Pp. 20-31.

(a) The Eighth Amendment has a "narrow proportionality principle" that "applies to noncapital sentences." Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U. S. 957, 996-997 (Kennedy, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). The Amendment's application in this context is guided by the principles distilled in Justice Kennedy's concurrence in Harmelin: "[T]he primacy of the legislature, the variety of legitimate penological schemes, the nature of our federal system, and the requirement that proportionality review be guided by objective factors" inform the final principle that the "Eighth Amendment does not require strict propor-


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