Release Date: January 3, 2022
Contact:  Michael Rushford
(916) 446-0345

Bookmark and Share

In a unanimous decision announced today, the California Supreme Court overturned a 2019 appeals court ruling which had held that under Proposition 57 a criminal convicted of multiple violent and nonviolent crimes qualifies for early release after serving only the sentence for one of the nonviolent crimes.

Writing for the majority in the case of In re Mohammad, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye found that the language in Proposition 57 was ambiguous and that in such cases the court looked to the ballot materials to determine the intent of the proponents and the voters. The court concluded that the initiative did not require the early release of violent felons. This approach is “consistent with the distinction between violent and nonviolent felonies emphasized in the ballot materials,” wrote the Chief Justice.

The Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (CJLF) had joined the case to argue that the lower court’s very literal interpretation of Proposition 57 was contrary to voter understanding and intent. If upheld, it would create an absurd result.

In 2016, Governor Jerry Brown and progressive hedge fund billionaire George Soros pooled $10 million to convince California voters to adopt Proposition 57, the so-called “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act.” The act was advertised as permitting early parole eligibility for state prisoners “convicted of a nonviolent felony offense” after completing the full term of their primary offense.

For defendants convicted of multiple felonies, sentencing courts have the authority to decide which crime to designate as the primary offense. Proposition 57 left it to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to devise the rules to determine which inmates qualified for early release. The CDCR promulgated regulations that excluded inmates serving a sentence for a violent crime from early parole consideration.

In early 2012, four years before Proposition 57 was adopted, habitual felon Mohammad pleaded no contest to nine counts of robbery (violent felonies) and six counts of receiving stolen property (nonviolent felonies). Remarkably, the sentencing court designated one of the nonviolent felonies as the principal offense and ordered him to serve a base term of three years in prison. The court then ordered consecutive one-year terms on each of the nine violent offenses and consecutive eight-month terms on each of the remaining five nonviolent felonies. With sentencing enhancements added, Mohammad’s aggregate sentence was 29 years.

After completing his three-year term for the nonviolent primary offense, Mohammad requested an early parole consideration hearing. CDCR denied his request. Mohammad appealed, and on November 26, 2019, a three-judge panel of California’s Second District Court of Appeal granted relief in a ruling stating that because Mohammad had completed the full term of his primary offense, under Proposition 57, he was eligible for early parole consideration even though he was also convicted and sentenced for violent offenses. The Court of Appeal interpreted the measure to mean that an inmate who is serving an aggregate sentence for more than one conviction will be eligible for an early parole hearing if one of those convictions was for “a” nonviolent felony offense.

In a scholarly amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief, CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton argued that the Court of Appeal’s erroneous interpretation of the measure ignored a court’s ability to consider the expressed intent of the proponents and the language of the materials describing the initiative to the voters. The appeals court’s interpretation of Proposition 57 would give a large percentage of the state prison population the opportunity for early release, contrary to the voters’ understanding and intent of the initiative. Such an interpretation would also lead to the absurd result that inmates convicted of multiple violent crimes and one nonviolent crime would be eligible for early parole consideration whereas inmates convicted only of one violent crime would not.

The CJLF brief cited California Supreme Court precedent noting, “It is settled that the language of a statute should not be given a literal meaning if doing so would result in absurd consequences that the Legislature did not intend. To this extent, therefore, intent prevails over the letter of the law and the letter will be read in accordance with the spirit of the enactment.”

“Nothing in the campaign to adopt Proposition 57 suggested that criminals with both violent and nonviolent convictions would qualify for early release after serving a short sentence for one of the nonviolent crimes,” said Stapleton. “Today’s decision validates the intent of the voters and the initiative’s proponents to exclude violent criminals from early release,” she added.

CJLF Associate Attorney Kymberlee Stapleton is available for comment at (916) 446-0345