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9th Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Despite 'Reclassification'

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on May 02, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A state's post-conviction reclassification of a crime from a felony to misdemeanor has no bearing on a federal statute's sentencing guidelines, the Ninth Circuit said recently. Even though a criminal might get relief from his felony status years after the fact by the state, federal sentencing rules will still look to the time of conviction in meting out the proper punishment.

Criminal law practitioners would do well to educate their clients on the finer nuances that blend federal and state criminal law.

Vasquez and California's Prop 47

Mr. Vasquez was a member of the Florencia Trece gang and had been previously convicted for felony level crimes related to drug trafficking. A federal district court threw the book at him and imposed a life imprisonment based on two prior 1996 California felony convictions for other drug related crimes qualified the court to use discretion for life sentencing under 21 U.S.C. sec. 841.

About four years later, California adopted Prop 47 which allowed California courts discretion in reclassifying certain felony convictions as misdemeanor convictions. A good many of these felony classifications are drug related, the impetus being to relieve jail congestion of so-called "non-violent" offenders. Vasquez petitioned a California superior court to reclassify his prior 90's convictions to misdemeanors. He then later argued that since these crimes were no longer felonies, his life sentence should be invalidated.

Reverse Ex Post Facto

The facts of the case do not appear to be one of first impression for the Ninth Circuit. In the past, the Ninth has treated retroactive post-conviction relief by the states as irrelevant with regards to federal sentencing enhancements; but it does look at the status of the conviction when the conviction is entered.

But it turned out that the circuit didn't even really need to go that far. Even though federal courts have been reticent to apply this reverse ex post facto theory in favor of plaintiffs, the statutes themselves contain provisions that cure them of any inconsistency with federal statutes. In the case of the law at hand, "Nothing in this and related sections is intended to diminish or abrogate the finality of judgments in any case not falling within the purview of this act.

In other words, the statute is cured of conflict preemption and may stand, but only as much as it comports to the will of Congress under the relevant acts Congress adopts.

Although Mr. Vasquez was successful in convincing a state court to reclassify his crimes, that post-conviction relief would have no bearing on a federal court's sentencing decision.

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