The California Supreme Court on Monday struck down the five-year prison sentence of a man who beat the mother of his children because a Sacramento judge failed to advise the defendant that his admission of a prior conviction could result in a more severe penalty.
On May 20, 2011, Joshua Cross went to see the woman at her apartment. During a dispute, he slapped, punched and choked her, resulting in a charge of felony infliction of corporal injury. A jury found him guilty the following November, and when he appeared for sentencing on Dec. 16, 2011, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Greta C. Fall gave him the maximum five years in prison. Four of those years stemmed from the jury’s verdict, but the fifth year was tacked because Cross, through his attorney, had acknowledged to the judge that he had pleaded no contest in the same court in 2009 to the same crime involving the same victim. That earlier conviction had been alleged by the district attorney’s office when Cross was charged in 2011.
The problem the Supreme Court found with all this is that Fall had not told Cross that the admission could result in more prison time and that he had a right to submit to the jury the question of whether he was previously convicted.
Relying heavily on its decision in a case more than 40 years ago, the high court said: “After counsel read the stipulation in open court, the trial court immediately accepted it. The court did not ask whether Cross had discussed the stipulation with his lawyer; nor did it ask any questions of Cross personally or in any way inform him of his right to a fair determination (by the jury) of the prior conviction allegation.”
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The Supreme Court unanimously reversed an opinion by the Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal affirming Fall’s finding that the prior conviction allegation was true, and ruling that her imposition of the five-year sentence was on solid legal ground. The high court sent the case back to the appellate court, which will send it back to Fall for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The 3rd District found that Cross’ acknowledgment of the prior conviction was not akin to a sentencing enhancement, but rather an “alternative sentencing scheme,” which did not require that Cross be advised of a possible increased prison term and that he be given an opportunity to waive his right to a jury verdict regarding the existence of a prior conviction.
But the seven high court justices said, “(W)e do not see a meaningful distinction between an ‘enhancement’ and an ‘alternative sentence scheme’ in this context.”
Monday’s 18-page opinion was authored by Justice Goodwin Liu.
Cross, 25, who was released from prison in 2013, has been held without bail since February in Sacramento County jail. He pleaded no contest a week ago to misdemeanor battery and was sentenced to three years of informal probation. In accord with a plea bargain, the charge was reduced from misdemeanor battery on the mother of his children.
Denny Walsh: (916) 321-1189