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Concurrent Terms Under the Three Strikes Reform Act

While working at an apartment complex in Los Angeles, William Aguilar saw defendant Level Omega Henderson and the apartment complex manager, Daniel Tillett, trading blows in the courtyard.

Mr. Aguilar called the police when he saw Mr. Henderson walk to his car and retrieve a gun.

Mr. Tillet and his girlfriend were standing together when Mr. Henderson returned, holding the gun.  Mr. Henderson then hit Mr. Tillet in the head with his gun and punched him with his other hand.  When Mr. Tillet’s girlfriend began yelling, he pointed the gun at her and Mr. Aguilar.

Police then arrived and saw Mr. Henderson strike Mr. Tillett several times, run into a vacant apartment, then emerge without a weapon.  He was then arrested, but police later found the gun.

Mr. Henderson was charged in the Clara Shortridge Foltz criminal courts building with assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, possession of a firearm by a felon, and two counts of assault with a semiautomatic firearm.  The information also charged Mr. Henderson with having suffered four prior serious felony convictions and that he had served four prior prison terms. 

The jury convicted Mr. Henderson as charged and the judge struck all the prior conviction allegations except one prior strike.  The judge therefore sentenced him as a second-strike offender, imposing the upper term of nine years for one semiautomatic weapon assault, doubled to 18 years, a consecutive four-year term for the second assault (one-third the mid-term, doubled), and five years for the prior serious felony conviction for a total of 27 years.

With respective to consecutive or concurrent sentencing on the two assaults, the judge stated, “The Three Strikes Law requires that on serious or violent felonies, two or more, that they be sentenced consecutively.”

Mr. Henderson appealed to the Second Appellate District Court, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion when it believed it had no discretion but to sentence him to consecutive terms, even though they occurred on the same occasion.  The Second Appellate District affirmed, finding the trial court made no error, concluding the trial court had no discretion to impose concurrent terms on multiple serious or violent felonies after passage of the Three Strikes Reform Act, or habitual criminal act. People v. Henderson (2020) 54 Cal. App. 5th 612, 620-627.

Mr. Henderson then appealed to the California Supreme Court, which reversed in favor of Mr. Henderson. 
The California Supreme Court began its analysis by explaining that under People v. Hendrix (1997) 16 Cal. 4th 508, 512, a court must impose consecutive sentences for multiple felonies that were not committed on the same occasion or did not arise from the same set of operative facts.  The Hendrix court, however, explained that a judge retained discretion to impose concurrent terms for those felonies that were committed on the same occasion or arose from the same set of operative facts, even if the felonies qualified as serious or violent.

The question then became whether the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (also known as Prop 36) changed the law and stripped sentencing courts of that discretion, abrogating Hendrix. 
The California Supreme Court found that the although the Three Strikes Reform Act language was ambiguous on this issue, legislative materials surrounding the act did seem to suggest voters wanted to reduce stringent application of the Three Strikes Law. 

Therefore, the California Supreme Court concluded that the Three Strikes Reform Act did not abrogate Hendrix, so the judge in Mr. Henderson’s case did have authority to run such sentences consecutively, which would have decreased Mr. Henderson’s sentence significantly. Moreover, the Supreme Court noted, this discretion had been in place for twenty-five years, so it could be presumed that voters knew about it and yet still chose not to alter the language that granted courts this discretion.

So, the California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals ruling and remanded the case back to the Clara Shortridge Foltz courthouse with instructions to hold a new sentencing hearing.

For more information about the Three Strikes Reform Act and consecutive sentencing, please click on the following articles:
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