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Ewing v. California

Scott Caron

ProfessorScott Caron

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CaseCast –  "What you need to know"

Ewing v. California

Citation. 538 U.S. 11, 123 S. Ct. 1179,155 L. Ed. 2d 108, 2003 U.S. 1952.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Defendant, Gary Ewing (Defendant), was convicted of one count of felony grand theft. Since he had previously been convicted of two or more serious or violent felonies, Defendant was sentenced, under California’s “three strikes” law to 25 years to life in prison.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Three strikes laws, which serve the legitimate goal of deterring and incapacitating repeat offenders, do not violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution’s (Constitution) prohibition on the imposition of a sentence that is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.


While on parole, Defendant stole three golf clubs priced at $399.00 each. Prior to this incident, Defendant had committed several prior crimes. In 1984, he pleaded guilty to theft. In 1988, Defendant was convicted of felony grand theft auto. However, the sentencing court reduced this crime to a misdemeanor after Defendant had served probation, permitted him to withdraw his guilty plea, and dismissed the case. In 1990, Defendant was convicted of petty theft with a prior. In 1992, he was convicted of battery. One month later, Defendant was convicted of theft. In January of 1993, he was convicted of burglary. In February 1993, he was convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia. In July 1993, Defendant was convicted of appropriating lost property. In September 1993, he was convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm and trespassing. In October and November 1993, Defendant committed three burglaries and one robbery at a Long Beach, California, apartment complex over a 5-week period
. On December 9, 1993, Defendant was arrested on the premises of the apartment complex for trespassing and lying to a police officer. The knife used in the robbery and a glass cocaine pipe were later found in the back seat of the patrol car used to transport Defendant to the police station. After his conviction of first-degree robbery and three counts of residential burglary, Defendant was sentenced to nine years and eight months in prison. While on parole for this conviction, Defendant stole the golf clubs at issue in this case. Defendant was convicted of one count of felony grand theft of personal property in excess of $400. The trial court found, as required by the three strikes law, that Defendant had been convicted previously of four serious or violent felonies for the three burglaries and the robbery in the Long Beach apartment complex. As a newly convicted felon with two or more “serious” or “violent” felony convictions in his past, Defendant was sentenced under the three strik
es law to 25 years to life.


Does California’s three strikes law violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments, which prohibits sentences that are disproportionate to the crime committed?


No. Judgment affirmed. The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is violated where the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime. The examination of a statute challenged on Eighth Amendment constitutional grounds must be guided by the [following] principles: “the 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–that inform the final one: The Eighth Amendment does not require strict proportionality between crime and sentence. Rather, it forbids only extreme sentences that are ‘grossly disproportionate’ to the crime.” Three strikes laws have the clear purpose of isolating career criminals from the general population since traditional forms of deterrence have not been effective. The Constitution does not mandate the adoption of a single, specific penological scheme, but rather, the state legislatures must decid
e this themselves. Hence, California, upon determining that recidivism among criminals presents a serious public safety concern, properly enacted a statute designed to isolate the repeat offender for an extended period. Accordingly, Defendant’s sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the crime committed.


Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stephens), with whom Justice David Souter (J. Souter), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (J. Ginsburg) and Justice Stephen Breyer (J. Breyer) join, dissents. In direct disagreement with the concurrences, J. Stevens opines that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution indeed “expresses a broad and basic proportionality principle that takes into account all of the justifications for penal sanctions.”

J. Breyer, with whom J. Souter, J. Ginsburg and J. Stevens join, dissents. J. Breyer opines that, Defendant’s recidivism notwithstanding, the sentence imposed is grossly disproportionate to the crime of stealing three golf clubs.


Justice Antonin Scalia (J. Scalia) concurs in the judgment. J. Scalia believes that the principle of “proportionality” cannot be intelligently applied. He opines that since-as the majority acknowledges-a sentence can have a variety of justifications including incapacitation, deterrence, retribution, or rehabilitation, it is insufficient to merely assess whether the gravity of the offense is proportionate to the harshness of the penalty. Certainly, in the present case, a sentence of 25 to life is not proportionate to the theft of three golf clubs. In short, J. Scalia advocates that instead of “read[ing] into the Eighth Amendment

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