Court Declines Shoplifter's '3 Strikes' Appeal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A6
Touching on the controversial "three strikes, you're out" laws that have swept the nation, the Supreme Court yesterday let California impose a 25-year prison sentence on a man who stole a bottle of vitamins from a supermarket.
Michael Wayne Riggs was caught taking the pills from a store display rack and putting them in his jacket pocket. If this had been his first offense, he would have gotten a fine or, under the most harsh circumstances, six months in jail. But because Riggs had a record of drug crimes, robbery and other felonies, California law required that he spend at least 25 years behind bars.
Riggs appealed through state courts, and although the California Court of Appeal described his crime as "a petty theft motivated by homelessness and hunger," it upheld the stiff sentence. Last year the California Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving Riggs to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for a hearing.
Had he gotten four justices to agree to hear the dispute, Riggs would have had another chance to make his case. But yesterday the court turned him down. Only one justice, Stephen G. Breyer, said the appeal should have been heard, questioning how the state could possibly apply such a penalty "to what is in essence a petty offense." In an unusual move, three other justices also noted concern that such tough mandatory sentences can so disproportionately punish a repeat criminal that they violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
"While this court has traditionally accorded to state legislatures considerable (but not unlimited) deference to determine the length of sentences for crimes . . . classifiable as felonies," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "petty theft does not appear to fall into that category."
But as much as Stevens, joined in his statement by Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, voiced constitutional worries about California's three-strikes law, the three justices did not vote to take up Riggs's case. Rather than joining Breyer, they said that the particulars of Riggs's criminal record were not clear and that they would rather wait until lower courts had established a more definitive record on California's three-strikes law.
But in declining to accept the case, the three justices also may have wondered whether they could have gotten the requisite fifth vote from any of the rest of the more conservative justices to build a majority opinion against a tough three-strikes law.
In a climate of rigid law enforcement and longer sentences, the justices have never taken up the question of whether a three-strikes law can be cruel and unusual punishment, particularly when the third offense is relatively minor. In past cases, the high court has said states may punish a repeat offender more severely than a first-time offender, but it also has said a sentence cannot be "grossly disproportionate" to the crime.
Over the past decade, more than two dozen states and the federal government have enacted laws that require lengthy prison sentences after a third felony. California's 1994 law, mandating at least 25 years for the third offense, is among the toughest in the nation. Stevens said the state is the only one that allows a misdemeanor offense to qualify for such a severe sentence.
In his roughly typed pauper petition to the Supreme Court, Riggs quoted from past court cases and said, "The state, even as it punishes, must treat its members with respect for their intrinsic worth as human beings. Punishment which is so excessive as to transgress those limits and deny that worth cannot be tolerated."
But California officials, urging the justices to reject the case of Riggs v. California, asserted that the state court had based its ruling on past Supreme Court decisions and its general rule of declining to second-guess state sentencing laws. The California attorney general's office emphasized Riggs's criminal history: convictions for car theft, two counts of possession of a controlled substance, two counts of forgery, two counts of receiving stolen property, attempted burglary, passing a check with intent to defraud and four counts of robbery.
The state appeals court said Riggs had spent most of the past 15 years behind bars and has had a recurring drug problem. When he was arrested a syringe was found hidden in his sock.
Separately yesterday, the justices also spurned an effort by Operation Rescue to revive a defamation lawsuit against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who described the antiabortion group as engaging in firebombing and murder. Lower courts had ruled that Kennedy, as an employee of the government, is protected from such a lawsuit.
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