- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2001

The Supreme Court yesterday slammed courthouse doors to prevent repeat criminals from using a "three strikes and youre out" sentencing procedure as a way to attack the constitutionality of a prior conviction.
"A contrary rule would effectively permit challenges far too stale to be brought in their own right, and sanction an end run around statutes of limitation and other procedural barriers," Justice Sandra Day OConnor wrote for the majority that split 5-4 on both cases.
Joining that judgment were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice David H. Souter was joined in his dissent by Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented separately.
Some federal laws and most states impose sentences that are doubled or tripled and, on the third conviction, often increased to life for career criminals. The practice of imprisoning a third offender for life gave such laws the "three strikes" nickname.
The decision was praised by prosecutors in the case and by the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, whose legal director, Kent Scheidegger, filed arguments that such challenges must be brought when the original conviction is in the courts.
"Years later, after the sentence has been served, prosecutors should not have to defend the past convictions in a career criminals record as he faces the consequences for yet another crime," Mr. Scheidegger said yesterday.
Justice OConnor said in announcing the decision from the bench that it facilitates "ease of administration and interest in promoting finality."
"Once the door to such review has been closed the conviction becomes final and the defendant is not entitled to another bite at the apple simply because that conviction is later used to enhance another sentence," she wrote for the court.
"Why is finality valuable when state law itself does not demand it, and why is finality a one-way street?" Justice Souter demanded, asking why the government may reach back 10 or more years to include a conviction that the prisoner is out of time to challenge.
"Why should it be easy to subject a person to a higher sentencing range and commit him for nearly nine extra years (as here) when the prisoner has a colorable claim that the extended commitment rests on a conviction the Constitution would condemn?" the dissent said.
Separate decisions cover state and federal courts, establishing a rule that prior felony convictions which are final are not subject to collateral attack or appeals in the context of a sentencing hearing on a new conviction.
The key exception to the rule, under a 1994 Supreme Court ruling in a Maryland case, applies when the prior conviction was obtained in violation of a defendants right to have a lawyer.
In the federal case, the court upheld a sentence of nearly 15 years for Earthy D. Daniels Jr. on his 1994 federal conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm under the Armed Career Criminal Act, without which the maximum sentence would have been 10 years.
Daniels was convicted twice of home burglary and twice of robbery in California state courts between 1977 and 1981. Daniels said his prior convictions were based on guilty pleas that were not voluntary.
The second case, applying the same new rule to state courts, upheld an enhanced sentence of six to 12 years given Edward R. Coss Jr. on a conviction for aggravated assault in Lackawanna County, Pa. He, too, challenged the validity of various prior convictions that justified the enhancement.

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