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Supreme Court Broadens Retroactivity Of Punishment-Reduction Laws

06/17/2021--Working on the presumption that the “Legislature intends for ameliorative enactments to apply as broadly as is constitutionally permissible,” the Supreme Court in People v. Esquivel today expands the number of convicted defendants who can take advantage of new statutes that reduce prison terms and that apply retroactively to non-final judgments. The court’s unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye holds to be not final, and thus eligible for resentencing, “a case in which a defendant is placed on probation with execution of an imposed state prison sentence suspended . . . if the defendant may still timely obtain direct review of an order revoking probation and causing the state prison sentence to take effect.” The Attorney General unsuccessfully argued the case is final when the defendant doesn’t appeal the suspended sentence, not when, as with Esquivel, the sentence is ordered into effect three years later upon a finding of a parole violation. The court ruled similarly last year in People v. McKenzie (2020) 9 Cal.5th 40, which involved the suspension of a prison sentence’s imposition instead of, in Esquivel, a sentence being imposed but its execution suspended. The court today says, “We see no persuasive reason to presume that the Legislature would wish to extend the benefit of ameliorative legislation to suspended-imposition defendants whose probation is revoked (per McKenzie), but not to suspended-execution defendants whose probation is revoked.” The change in the law in Esquivel is Senate Bill 136, which, in 2019, restricted what had been a generally applicable enhancement for prior felony prison and jail terms to one that is now imposed only for those prior terms served for sexually violent offenses. The court reverses the Second District, Division Five, Court of Appeal.

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