On November 4, 2014, California voters passed an initiative called the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act.” Labeled “Proposition 47” (Prop 47), this initiative reclassified many low level theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors for qualifying defendants. This sweeping change, effective the day after the election, had immediate consequences for:
For more information on specific aspects of Proposition and how it will work, see California Proposition 47 FAQ.
Not everyone who is facing charges covered by Prop 47, or who has convictions for the crimes the proposition addresses, will benefit from the proposition’s reductions. Prop 47 will not help those who have previous convictions for very serious crimes. These include:
People who are still serving their sentences, and who are “at risk of committing” one of the offenses listed above, may also be excluded from Prop 47’s benefits, even if they have no prior convictions for the crimes listed above. To be excluded in this way, the District Attorney will file an opposition in response to a defendant’s petition for Prop 47 relief, and will request what is called a “Dangerousness Hearing.” At that hearing, the District Attorney will have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a defendant is at risk of committing one of the above offenses in the future. Note how difficult this should prove to be: The prosecutor must prove that the defendant is at risk of committing a far more serious offense than he has ever committed, because having one of these crimes on one's record disqualifies a person from even asking for Prop 47 resentencing.
Proposition 47 targets a limited number of crimes: only drug possession for personal use (not sale or manufacture) and specified theft offenses for amounts less than $950 have been downgraded.
Three offenses targeting possession of controlled substances for personal use are now only misdemeanors:
For example, possession of cocaine, a violation of Health and Safety Code section 11350, used to be a felony charge. Now it is only a misdemeanor charge, unless the defendant has a prior serious or violent felony charge as explained above (or has been proved to be at risk of committing such an offense). In that case, the charge can remain a felony. Persons previously convicted of this offense, or who are on probation or in a drug diversion program for this offense, are now able to petition the court to reclassify the charge as a misdemeanor (as long as the person isn't excluded, as explained above).
Prop 47 made significant changes to several code sections related to certain theft crimes. The most important change was to take away the prosecution’s discretion in filing these types of crimes as either a felony or a misdemeanor (this option earned these crimes the name “wobblers”). Now, the prosecutor may charge only a misdemeanor if the amount in question is not more than $950. These theft crimes are:
Prop 47 also added a new crime of shoplifting, which formerly could be prosecuted as a theft or burglary charge, regardless of the amount of merchandise involved. This new, separate crime (Penal Code section 459a) is defined as entering a commercial dwelling, such as a convenience store, while the establishment is open and during regular business hours, with the intent to commit a theft, so long as the value of the property is less than $950. This is an important change because the law used to allow this conduct to be charged as commercial burglary, a more serious felony punishable by up to three years in prison; or as a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in the county jail, within the discretion of the prosecution. Now the act of shoplifting may not be charged as a burglary or any other theft, and is punishable only by a maximum county jail term of 6 months.
Most judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys were well aware, on November 5, 2014, that felony cases involving Prop 47 charges that were pending in the courts needed to be downgraded immediately. (See Prop. 47 jolts landscape of California justice system, LA Times, November 6, 2014, recounting a felony sentencing postponed from November 4, 2014 that became a misdemeanor sentencing on November 5th.) Defendants currently facing charges for the offenses detailed above should be looking at misdemeanor charges, and those whose cases are on appeal are entitled to petition for resentencing under the new scheme (with the caveat that some may not qualify, see “Who Will Not Benefit From Prop 47?” above).
Misdemeanors Now Carry a Sentence of 364 Days, Not One Year: Immigration Implications
Misdemeanor sentences in California are now punishable by no more than 364 days, not "one year," as was the case for years. The law specifies that any crime "punishable by imprisonment in a county jail up to or not exceeding one year shall be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not to exceed 364 days."
The change came about in stages: as of January 1, 2015, it applied only to crimes committed on or after that date. But as of January 1, 2017, the law is retroactive. This means that defendants who were sentenced and actually served a misdemeanor sentence of 365 days can petition the court to have their sentence reduced to 364 days. (Ca. Penal Code section 18.5).
Legislators had one specific reason for this change: To make certain California misdemeanors ineligible, under federal law, to be the basis of a deportation order from an immigration judge (convictions for certain crimes, for which the sentence is "one year," can form the basis for deportation). And, some misdemeanors are known as "aggravated felonies" under federal immigration law when the judge imposed a sentence of one year (365 days). Affected defendants can ask a judge to lower their imposed sentences by one day, which will avoid that consequence.
Resentencing orders, like the one in Nolo's Resentencing Kit, specify that the sentence for the resentenced defendant is not in excess of 364 days; the defendant can present this order to an immigration judge to show that the crime was not punishable by one year's imprisonment.
People who have been convicted of Prop 47 felonies, no matter how recently or long ago, are entitled to request resentencing or reclassification as misdemeanants, by filing an application or petition with the court where they were convicted. This applies to those long ago released from custody or probation, and those still serving time. For those still incarcerated, this could mean immediate release from custody followed by a shorter term of parole than would have originally occurred.
People who may benefit from Prop 47 have only three years from November 5, 2014 to file a petition to determine if their convictions are eligible for reduction from felonies to misdemeanors. The statute allows for later filings "for good cause shown," but that will be a difficult test to meet.
Many public defender offices around the state have implemented procedures to help their former clients and answer questions about whether the clients are eligible to return to court for resentencing or redesignation. Several county courts and public defender offices have posted forms on their websites that can be used to assist in the petition or application process. However, none of these forms come with the instructions and information you will need to fill them out and get your case before the sentencing court; and few counties supply all four forms needed to get the job done. Unless your county has provided a mandatory form, you can use Nolo's Proposition 47 kits, shown above, right, to bring your case to court (even in counties with mandatory forms, none provide all four; use Nolo's kit to supply the needed forms). Most Proposition 47 situations are straightforward and can be handled by a defendant without the need of hiring a lawyer.
However, as you have gathered from reading this article, a Proposition 47 reduction is not necessarily a simple matter. You may have questions about your situation that only an experienced criminal defense lawyer can answer. In this event, it is a good idea to consult with a criminal defense lawyer who practices in your area to determine whether Prop 47 can change your felony conviction to a misdemeanor.