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Exclusion of LWOP from eligibility for Youth Offender Parole Hearing Does not Violate Equal Protection

People v. Sands (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 12, 2021, No. A160973) 2021 WL 4739531, at *1–2

Summary: Sands was 24 years old when he committed a special circumstance murder (Pen. Code §§ 187, 190.2, subd. (a)(10)), and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. He filed a motion in the superior court, seeking to develop a record of mitigating circumstances for an eventual youth offender parole hearing (see People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053 (Franklin)). The trial court denied Sands’s motion, and he appeals. Having been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed after the age of 18, he is statutorily ineligible for a youth offender parole hearing (§ 3051, subd. (h)) but argues that the statutory exclusion violates his rights to equal protection.  The Court of Appeal  disagreed and affirmed.

Youth Offender Parole Hearings

Following decisions addressing Eighth Amendment limits on juvenile sentencing (see, e.g., Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, 132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407 (Miller); Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48, 75, 130 S.Ct. 2011, 176 L.Ed.2d 825), the Legislature enacted section 3051. (Sen. Bill No. 260 (2013-2014 Reg. Sess.), Stats. 2013, ch. 312, §§ 1, 4; In re Trejo (2017) 10 Cal.App.5th 972, 980-981 & fn. 6, 216 Cal.Rptr.3d 855.) As amended, the statute now provides an opportunity for youth offender parole hearings to most persons convicted of crimes committed before the age of 26 in their 15th, 20th, or 25th year of incarceration, depending on the sentence imposed for their “ ‘[c]ontrolling offense.’ ” (§ 3051, subds. (a)(2)(B), (b)(1)-(4).)

The Legislature originally “passed [section 3051] explicitly to bring juvenile sentencing into conformity with Graham [and] Miller” as well as decisions from the California Supreme Court. (Franklin, supra, 63 Cal.4th at p. 277, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.) It cited recent developments in neuroscience showed that “youthfulness both lessens a juvenile’s moral culpability and enhances the prospect that, as a youth matures into an adult and neurological development occurs,” such individuals can, by demonstrating rehabilitation and maturity, become contributing members of society. (Sen. Bill No. 260 (2013-2014 Reg. Sess.), Stats. 2013, ch. 312, § 1.)

The statute originally limited eligibility for youth offender parole hearings to juvenile offenders (although it excluded juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole). (See People v. Morales (2021) 67 Cal.App.5th 326, 346, 282 Cal.Rptr.3d 151 (Morales).) The Legislature later amended it to apply to most offenders who committed crimes before the age of 23, and then before the age of 26. (In re Trejo, supra, 10 Cal.App.5th at p. 981 & fn. 6, 216 Cal.Rptr.3d 855; Sen. Bill No. 261 (2015-2016 Reg. Sess.), Stats. 2015, ch. 471, § 1; Sen. Bill No. 394 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), Stats. 2017, ch. 684, § 1.5.) The Legislature again cited recent developments in neuroscience that indicate the maturity process does not end at 18 and brain development involved in decision making and impulse control extends into one’s early 20s. (People v. Acosta (2021) 60 Cal.App.5th 769, 776-777, 275 Cal.Rptr.3d 110 (Acosta); In re Williams (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 427, 434, 271 Cal.Rptr.3d 453 (Williams).)

The Legislature also amended section 3051 to allow parole hearings, in their 25th year of imprisonment, for juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before age 18. (§ 3051, subd. (b)(4); Sen Bill No. 394 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), Stats. 2017, ch. 684, § 1.5.) This remedied the  unconstitutional juvenile sentences without the need for an expensive and time-consuming resentencing hearing. (Morales, supra, 67 Cal.App.5th at p. 347, 282 Cal.Rptr.3d 151; see Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, 212, 136 S.Ct. 718, 193 L.Ed.2d 599 [“[a] State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing”].)

Section 3051, subdivision (h), excludes certain categories of youthful offenders from the youth offender parole hearing process. (Morales, supra, 67 Cal.App.5th at p. 346, 282 Cal.Rptr.3d 151.) The process is unavailable to offenders “sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a controlling offense that was committed after the person had attained 18 years of age.” (§ 3051, subd. (h), italics added.) The statute also categorically excludes offenders sentenced under the One Strike Law (§ 667.61) or the Three Strikes Law (§§ 667, 1170.12). (§ 3051, subd. (h).)

Motion for a Franklin Hearing

In 2020, Sands filed a motion for a Franklin record development hearing in the superior court, arguing that section 3051 violates the equal protection clause on its face because it irrationally excludes offenders who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed at age 18 to 25. The trial court denied his motion.

In In re Cook (2019) 7 Cal.5th 439, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912 (Cook), our Supreme Court held that, even though an offender’s sentence is otherwise final, he or she is nonetheless entitled to seek the remedy of a Franklin proceeding. (Cook, supra, at p. 451, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912.)

Rational basis for distinction between LWOP over age 18

The Legislature had a rational basis to distinguish between offenders with the same sentence (life without parole) based on their age. For juvenile offenders, such a sentence may violate the Eighth Amendment. (Graham v. Florida, supra, 560 U.S. at p. 75, 130 S.Ct. 2011; Miller, supra, 567 U.S. at p. 479, 132 S.Ct. 2455.) But the same sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment when imposed on an adult, even an adult under the age of 26. (Morales, supra, 67 Cal.App.5th at p. 347, 282 Cal.Rptr.3d 151.)

Sands committed both first degree murder and was found to have committed that murder under one of the aggravating circumstances specified in the special circumstance murder statute.

There was no equal protection violation.

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