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Does Penal Code § 3051 Violate Equal Protection?

As the reader of this website may already be aware, in just the last ten years, our judiciary has become increasingly aware of the significant differences between juveniles and adults in why crimes are committed and how punishment should be changed for juvenile offenders and even young adults.  The new opinions followed new research in neuroscience, but also built upon opinions that prohibited a death sentence for a person who was determined to be mentally retarded.
Brief Synopsis: There is no equal protection violation in allowing a youth offender parole hearing to those who commit crimes while under age 18 and being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (Penal Code § 3051) and denying such a hearing to those who commit similar crimes at age 18 to 25 with the same sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court framed the new understanding in the context of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as applied to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for a juvenile offender. See, e.g., Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460; Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48.

California recognized these new legal standards, for example, in People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal. 4th 261, in enacting Penal Code § 3051, which in its current form, provides an opportunity for a youthful offender to be released from prison through a youth offender parole hearing at his or her 15th, 20th or 25th year of incarceration, depending upon the sentence imposed for the “controlling offense.”  A youthful offender eligible under this statute is one who committed his or her crime at age 25 or younger.  The statute recognizes that such individuals, by demonstrating rehabilitation and maturity, become contributing members of society.

Section 3051 allows parole hearings in the 25th year of incarceration for juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before the age of 18.  § 3051(b)(4).

Section 3051(h), however, excludes certain offenders from the youth offender parole hearing process.  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 reached the age of 18, as well as offenders sentenced under the One Strike Law (Penal Code § 667.61) or the Three Strikes Law (Penal Code §§ 667, 1170.12).  Penal Code § 3051(h).

This framework is important for understanding the appeal of Philip Leo Sands to the First Appellate District.  When Sands was 24 years old in 2001, he committed, among other crimes, special circumstance murder (Penal Code §§ 187, 190.2(a)(10)) and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, plus 25 to life.  Sands stabbed Robin Clarke, inflicting life-threatening injuries.  The murder was witnesses by Sands’ friend, Robert Ramirez.

In 2003, Sands posted bail and killed Ramirez by firing a machine gun at him at least 30 times while Ramirez sat in a parked car.

In 2020, Sands filed a motion for a Franklin record development hearing, arguing that Penal Code § 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 the motion.

Sands then appealed to the First Appellate District in San Francisco.  The First Appellate District first evaluated, under the equal protection analysis, whether “the state has adopted a classification that affects two or more similarly situated groups in an unequal manner.”  People v. Brown (2012) 54 Cal.4th 314, 328.  Second, it noted it must evaluate “if there is any rational basis to support treating the groups differently.”  People v. Turnage (2102) 55 Cal. 4th 62, 74.

The court then noted there are really three groups at issue here: 1) Sands’ group, which consists of young adult offenders who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed at age 18 to 25; 2) juvenile offenders who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed under the age of 18; and 3) young adult offenders sentenced to so-called “de facto life without parole” for crimes they committed between the ages of 18 and 25.  Offenders in the third group are eligible for parole, but not within their natural lifetimes.

Sands argued his group is similarly situated to the other two groups and that there is no rational basis for extending youth parole hearings to offenders in those groups while excluding his.  Penal Code §§ 3051(a)(2)(B), (b)(3), (b)(4), (h).

In reviewing whether there is any rational basis, the court noted, it may consider “any plausible rational basis without questioning its wisdom, logic, persuasiveness, or fairness, and regardless of whether the Legislature ever articulated it.  People v. Chatman (2018) 4 Cal. 5th 277, 289.

The First Appellate District Court found there was a rational basis for excluding “Sands’ group” from youth parole hearings because his in the view of the Legislature, juveniles’ crimes are less heinous than those committed by those who are older because research shows juveniles have less ability to recognize the gravity of their conduct and have a higher potential for rehabilitation.  Juveniles are also more likely to be influenced by peer pressure than older offenders and juveniles have not developed judgment or self-control as much as older offenders; juveniles are more impulsive than older offenders.

Therefore, the First Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Sands’ Franklin motion, challenging 3051 on equal protection grounds.

The citation for the First Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Philip Leo Sands (1st App. Dist., 2021) 70 Cal. App. 5th 193, 285 Cal. Rptr. 3d 238.

For more information about a Youth Offender Parole Hearing and Penal Code § 3051, please click on the following articles:
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