August 17, 2012

People v. Caballero Overturned

On August 16, 2012, the California Supreme Court overturned the judgment in People v. Caballero and sent it back to the lower court for resentencing. The Youth Law Center and other advocacy groups filed an amicus brief through the Pacific Juvenile Defender Center seeking this result. The case involves a 16 year-old youth tried in adult criminal court and sentenced to 110 years in prison for his role in a street shooting in which one person was injured. In the opinion, the Court looks for guidance to Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. ___, which held in a nonhomicide life without parole case that courts may not decide at the outset that juvenile offenders are so irreparable that they can never be released. Caballero is important in applying that reasoning to a “de facto” life sentence. The opinion states that, “Consistent with the high court‟s holding in Graham, supra, 560 U.S. ___ [130 S.Ct. 2011], we conclude that sentencing a juvenile offender for a nonhomicide offense to a term of years with a parole eligibility date that falls outside the juvenile offender‟s natural life expectancy constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” It noted that Rodrigo Caballero would become parole eligible over 100 years from now, and so would have no opportunity to “demonstrate growth and maturity” to try to secure his release, in violation of the holding of Graham.

The opinion calls for the sentencing court to consider all mitigating circumstances, “including but not limited to his or her chronological age at the time of the crime, whether the juvenile offender was a direct perpetrator or an aider and abettor, and his or her physical and mental development”, so that it can impose a time when the juvenile offender will be able to seek parole from the parole board. The opinion applies to the sentencing of youth facing long sentences in the future, but also applies to youth who have already been sentenced to “defacto” life sentences that exceed their life expectancy. Youth who have already been sentenced may file a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the trial court to allow the court to weigh the mitigating evidence in determining the extent of incarceration required before they may be considered for parole. The opinion notes that, because every case will be different, a precise time frame for setting these future parole hearings in a nonhomicide case is not possible, but the sentence must not violate the defendant’s Eighth Amendment rights and must provide him or her a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” under Graham’s mandate. The Court also calls for the Legislature to consider providing additional guidance in these cases.

Caballero represents a major step forward in incorporating United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on immaturity and adolescent development into California criminal law. The opinion is available at