How Does California’s Three Strikes Law Work?

How the Three Strikes Law Can Land You a Harsher Sentence

The state of California’s Three Strikes law is a sentencing system meant to punish repeat offenders of serious crimes and disincentivize those with records of acting unlawfully. Taking its informal name from baseball, the rule works much the same way as in the sport: If you receive three “strikes,” you are “out,” or will be given a significantly more severe prison sentence than you would have otherwise received.

The Three Strikes law has metastasized in the state over the years, and many do not understand how the law works or how it might impact them. Many mistakenly believe the system is as simple as it sounds, but the reality is there are numerous intricacies beyond a basic “three strikes and you’re out.” Below, we cover the basics of the Three Strikes rules, how it works in several scenarios, and what you can do to defend yourself should you become a “striker” yourself.

What Counts as a Strike?

A “strike” is considered any violent felony or serious crime convictions in the state of California. If you accumulate three “strikes,” you could face 25 years to life in prison instead of the normal sentence.

Some examples of serious or violent felonies in California include:

  • Murder and attempted murder
  • Voluntary manslaughter
  • Rape
  • Pedophilia and lewd acts on minors
  • Robbery
  • Burglary in the first degree
  • Arson
  • Carjacking
  • Kidnapping
  • Extortion
  • Assault with intent to commit certain other felonies, like murder or rape
  • Any crime involving your using a firearm
  • Sale of certain types of illicit substances to minors

A conviction for any of the above crimes will count as a “strike” on your record. Out-of-state convictions count in California as well, so if you were convicted of robbery in Michigan, for example, and faced new charges in California, you would have a “strike prior” even though the earlier crime did not occur in the state.

Furthermore, you can accumulate multiple “strikes” in a single court case. If you are accused of both arson and murder, for example, you could potentially gain two “strikes” if convicted.

One Strike Law

Believe it or not, you can become entangled with California’s elevated sentencing with a single strike. This only applies to sex crimes where “aggravating factors” are involved. Sex crimes can include rape, lewd or “vivacious” acts, sodomy, oral copulation, or consistent sexual abuse of a minor.

Aggravating factors that can contribute to a one strike law sentencing include:

  • Being a repeat sex crime offender
  • Abducting the victim
  • Tying or binding the victim
  • Drugging the victim
  • Injuring the victim
  • Using a dangerous weapon in the course of committing the crime

The one strike law can be used to extend the typical sentence for a sex crime from anywhere between 15 to 25 years. In extreme circumstances, it can even deliver a life sentence.

Two Strikes Law

Many do not realize that you can face significantly elevated sentencing with only one strike prior on your record. Sometimes referred to as a “two strikes law,” if you have a single strike prior, you can face double the maximum sentence for your second conviction of a serious or violent felony.

For example, say you have previously been convicted of first-degree robbery before being convicted of first-degree robbery a second time. Instead of the normal 9-year maximum prison sentence, you could face a sentence of up to 18 years under the Two Strikes law.

Other Factors of the Three Strikes Law

As discussed above, you can face 25 years to life in prison for a third serious or violent felony conviction in California. However, even if you only have 2 strike priors, there are instances where the Three Strikes law can work against you.

For example, if you have 2 strike priors and are convicted of a 3rd felony that is not considered a serious or violent felony, you might think you are safe from a Three Strikes sentence. In actuality, because of your two prior strikes, you can be charged with double the maximum sentence for the crime in which you are convicted. This is in some ways an extension of the Two Strikes law, except it extends to crimes that would otherwise not trigger an elevated sentence.

A non-strike felony can still net a striker with 25 years to life in prison if the third felony involves:

  • The individual using a firearm or other deadly weapon while carrying out the crime
  • The individual intending to cause great bodily harm
  • A major sex crime requiring sex offender registration
  • A drug offense involving heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, or related controlled substances

An elevated sentence can also be activated if one of the individual’s prior strikes includes any on a shortlist of especially serious crimes. These include major sex crimes, particularly those involving minors, as well as murder and manslaughter.

Fighting Strikes

Luckily, there are ways in which you can fight strikes and avoid the worst consequences of California’s striker laws. Sometimes this occurs organically in the course of your initial trial. A prosecutor might drop strike allegations if they feel they are too difficult to prove, if they do not wish to subject you to striker punishments, or as part of plea bargaining.

A criminal defense attorney can also attempt to remove prior strikes, either proactively or as part of a new trial in which you could face striker-related sentencing. This is done through a Romero motion and hearing. A judge will be asked to dismiss a strike prior to avoid undue hardship. Factors involved in the decision typically include the rehabilitation and present circumstances of the defendant, how long ago the strike priors occurred, and the specific nature and severity of the strike priors as well as the current charge. Getting one or more strikes removed from your criminal record can make the difference between a light versus a life sentence.

You can also appeal a Three Strikes sentence with the help of experienced legal representation. Depending on the nature of your offenses, a successful appeal can mean reducing or eliminating prison time. You can also argue that Three Strikes sentencing constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” in your situation, an approach that has worked in some cases.

If You Are a Striker, We Can Help You

Our team at Lessem, Newstat & Tooson, LLP has over 50 years of combined legal experience helping defend Californians from criminal charges. We understand every facet of the state’s laws and can proactively work to keep you from accumulating strikes. If you already have strikes on your record, our skilled criminal defense attorneys can attempt to “strike” strike priors and minimize any sentences going forward. Our goal is to do everything possible to protect and preserve your rights, no matter your record or what charges you are facing.

Do not wait to address strike priors. Call (800) 462-7160 or contact us online to request a consultation.