The California Supreme Court decided Thursday that a three-strikes defendant may not erase a prior conviction on the grounds that his former lawyer was incompetent.
The court's unanimous ruling overturned a 1995 Court of Appeal decision that prosecutors had complained undermined the tough three-strikes sentencing law.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the Supreme Court, said allowing three-strike defendants to challenge prior convictions on the basis of poor legal representation would impose "an intolerable burden" on the court system.
"The effective administration of criminal justice would not be furthered, but rather would face disruption," George wrote.
The ability to challenge prior convictions is important to defendants because under the 1994 three-strikes law, a person convicted of a third felony after two earlier violent or serious felonies faces 25 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors had feared that such defendants would inundate the courts with challenges claiming ineffective legal representation if the 2-1 Court of Appeal decision in Santa Ana was upheld. The dissenting justice in the case had charged his colleagues with knocking a "large hole" in the three-strikes law.
Now, only death penalty defendants can challenge prior convictions on the grounds of incompetent counsel. Previous convictions can be challenged in non-death penalty cases if the defendant had no lawyer.
"So if you have a warm body next to you, that is good enough," said Kevin J. Phillips, the Orange County deputy alternate public defender who represented David John Garcia, the defendant in the case.
Phillips said he was "put off" by the Supreme Court's concern about the potential for court disruption because "there is no demonstrable evidence that these things would interrupt the court's orderly business."
Garcia, 33, is in jail awaiting trial on his third strike, heroin possession. He was convicted of two burglaries several years ago.
While Garcia's case was making its way through the courts, the California Supreme Court ruled in June in another case that judges may overlook prior convictions in three-strike cases if the sentence otherwise would be unjust.
Phillips said he now will ask the trial judge to dismiss one of Garcia's convictions on such grounds. "Given the facts of Mr. Garcia's case, I would hope that is what happens," Phillips said.
Garcia was charged with heroin possession after police found a minute fraction of a gram of a substance that contained heroin on a spoon, his lawyer said.
Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, praised Thursday's decision as a "significant step forward" in getting habitual criminals off the streets.
"It eliminates one of the paths to evading these sentences," he said.
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. James J. Mulgrew said the ruling was important because determining if a defense lawyer in a previous case was legally competent consumes months of court time and a costly investigation.
The number of defendants making these challenges escalated after three strikes passed, delaying trials, Mulgrew said.