In In re Vaquera, the Supreme Court today orders a 25-years-to-life sentence for committing a lewd act on a child under 14 to be reduced to 15-years-to-life. The defendant was sentenced under the “One Strike” law, which the court describes as “an alternative sentencing scheme that applies when the prosecution pleads and proves specific aggravating circumstances in connection with certain sex offenses.”

The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Joshua Groban holds the reduction is required because the defendant didn’t have fair notice that the prosecution was seeking the enhanced sentence. The defendant was prosecuted for, and convicted of, a crime under circumstances that one subdivision of the “One Strike” law says “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 25 years to life.” (Emphasis added.) However, the charging information had cited not that subdivision, but a subdivision providing for a 15-years-to-life sentence and the prosecution didn’t advocate for the higher sentence until it filed a second sentencing brief four days before the defendant’s sentencing hearing.

The court states, “An accusatory pleading need not specify the number of the pertinent sentencing statute, so long as it otherwise clearly notifies the accused of the factual basis on which it is seeking a longer sentence and the information necessary to calculate sentencing exposure.” However, the opinion concludes, “Read as a whole, the pleading failed to inform Vaquera of the prosecutor’s election to seek the more stringent sentence and did not provide fair notice of his sentencing exposure.” The statute makes the enhanced punishment mandatory, but only “when a One Strike allegation is properly pled and proved,” and it “does not relieve the prosecution of its obligation to provide fair notice to the defendant of the sentence it is seeking.”

The court reverses a Fourth District, Division Three, Court of Appeal published opinion, which was issued on remand from the Supreme Court (the remand was over five years ago; Vaquera is one of the oldest non-capital cases on the Supreme Court’s docket) after Division Three had summarily denied the defendant’s habeas corpus petition. Division Three had disagreed with the Sixth District’s decision in People v. Jimenez (2019) 35 Cal.App.5th 373, 393–397. The Attorney General didn’t seek review in Jiminez; the defendant did, but the court denied his petition.

Additionally, the Supreme Court disapproves the First District, Division Four, opinion in People v. Neal (1984) 159 Cal.App.3d 69 and the Second District, Division Eight, opinion in People v. Zaldana (2019) 43 Cal.App.5th 527. Zaldana has been a grant-and-hold for today’s decision for almost four years.


Supreme Court strikes sentence enhancements for lack of notice