Washington’s landmark “three strikes, you’re out” law survived its first legal challenge before the state Supreme Court on Thursday, but a defense attorney said the fight to overturn the law has only begun.
The high court soundly rejected appeals from three men jailed for life under the 1993 law, the first of its kind in the nation.
The law, imposed by citizen initiative, allows three-time felons to be imprisoned for life without parole. The appeals contended the law violates rights protected by the state and federal constitutions.
But the justices said the law “is not unconstitutionally vague nor does it violate equal protection guarantees.”
The court also found the law does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment, Justice Richard Guy wrote in an 8-1 opinion.
Dissenting Justice Richard Sanders found merit in the appeals. “The statute is severe, harsh and merciless. Its punishment is imposed without regard to necessity,” he wrote. “This statute is unconstitutional on its face.”
But in a second opinion affirming the decision, Justice Charles Z. Smith wrote the law is “proportionate to the seriousness” of the crimes and was “not imposed on an untenable basis. Instead, it was imposed upon the commission of (a) third ‘most serious offense,’ an act which society has a legitimate interest in preventing.”
It was the first time the state’s highest court has considered challenges to the law. California’s high court threw out that state’s equivalent in June.
“This is just the opening shot in the legal fight that’s going to ensue,” said Seattle attorney Richard Tassano, who represented defendant Paul Rivers in the appeal rejected Thursday. “We needed this ruling in order to mount other challenges.”
Tassano said there may be other constitutional grounds for challenging the law and the matter could be a candidate for federal consideration.
“I’m thrilled that our court voted as they did and saw that our law was accurate and reasonable,” said state Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, head of the House Corrections Committee and a key supporter of the law.
“Crime continues to be the No. 1 problem in this country, not just our state, and the sentencing of criminals continues to be a major issue,” she said.
In Spokane County, where a half-dozen criminals have been sentenced under the law, Prosecuting Attorney Jim Sweetser applauded the decision.
“After two serious violent offenses, enough is enough,” Sweetser said. “One more victim is too many.”
“We feel it’s a neat tool,” said sheriff’s Lt. John Simmons. “It probably will eventually be a deterrent. And those who aren’t deterred will end up behind bars for good.”
But defense attorneys said the law is too broad and unfairly targets minorities.
Spokane County Public Defender Don Westerman says he doesn’t have a problem with locking up hardened, habitual criminals. “But I think this law treats everyone in this category, like they shouldn’t be on the streets,” he said.
In the cases before the Supreme Court, the robbers’ attorneys argued in separate hearings that the law is vague and leads prosecutors to inconsistent interpretations. They also contended the law violates due process rights and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The challenges came from Rivers, who was convicted of robbing an espresso stand in Seattle; George W. Manussier, who robbed a Pierce County bank; and James Thorne, who robbed a hospital gift shop and kidnapped an employee in Snohomish County. All claimed to be armed.
So far, at least 59 people have been sentenced under Washington’s law after commission of three qualifying felonies.
Nearly 20,000 prisoners were sentenced under California’s 1994 law, which was overturned by that state’s Supreme Court on grounds that it usurped judges’ authority to determine whether a three-time loser warranted a life term.
The California court cited a century-old state statute that allows judges to dismiss charges or disregard a previous conviction in the interests of justice.
Washington does not have such a law, and past rulings here affirm the Legislature’s authority to mandate sentencing.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ‘Three strikes’ Key facts about Washington’s “three strikes, you’re out” law: Requires life sentences for people convicted of three felonies from a list of some 40 “serious” crimes, ranging from robbery to child molestation. Passed by voters in November 1993, the first such law in the nation. Has resulted in life terms for 59 people.