Ewing v. California: Case Brief

Instructor: Brittany McKenna

Brittany is a licensed attorney who specializes in criminal law, legal writing, and appellate practice and procedure.

The Supreme Court examined the constitutionality of the controversial 'three strikes laws' in the Ewing v. California decision. This lesson discusses the facts of the Ewing case, as well as the Supreme Court's holding and analysis.

Three Strikes

The game of baseball revolves around a simple concept: three strikes and you're out! After all, a batter should only have so many opportunities to score a run. Get three strikes at the bat and, well, you're out.

In the early 1980s, the state of California adopted a baseball-like approach to dealing with career criminals -- i.e., offenders who commit multiple crimes over their lifetime. This law became known as the 'three strikes law.' Under this law, a defendant who is convicted of three felonies or violent crimes must get a lifetime sentence and is only eligible for parole after 25 years. This brings us to the case of Ewing v. California.

The Facts of Ewing v. California

In 2000, Gary Ewing was arrested for stealing three golf clubs from a golf course pro shop. At the time he was arrested, Ewing was on probation stemming from earlier burglary and robbery convictions. Ewing was convicted of stealing the golf clubs and was sentenced to 25 years to life under California's three strikes law.

Ewing appealed his conviction all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where he argued that California's three strikes law violated the Eight Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

The Question Presented to the Supreme Court

Does a law that imposes a 25-year to lifetime sentence for a burglary violate the Eighth Amendment? In other words, does the imposition of a disproportionate sentence constitute 'cruel and unusual punishment?'

The Holding and Analysis of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court held that California's three strike law did not constitute 'cruel and unusual' punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court relied on an earlier case which held that the Eighth Amendment has something known as a 'narrow proportionality principle.' The narrow proportionality principle of the Eighth Amendment requires that the harshness of a sentence be compared to the seriousness of the crime committed. Under this approach, the Supreme Court determined that the Eighth Amendment doesn't mandate that the punishment be strictly proportional to the crime -- rather that the punishment must not be 'grossly disproportionate' to the crime.

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