What does Prop. 47 do?
California’s Prop. 47 recently passed with 58.5 percent of the vote, becoming effective on November 5, 2014. It reduces most simple drug possession offenses misdemeanors and provides a means for persons already convicted of a felony to obtain a reduction by filing a post-conviction motion. It also changed certain other non-drug related statutes including those related to commercial burglary, forgery and bad checks aka “NSF checks”.
Voters have long had an inexplicable love affair with simplistic labels offered to solve complex legal and social problems. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the label “tough on crime” was enough to sell voters on costly and draconian punishments for even relatively minor crimes. The problem was that, while it was certainly tough on defendants and their families, it cost an awful lot of money and didn’t actually do much to deter crime itself.
In almost every election year, California had new initiatives creating mandatory prison terms for a range of offenses. In 1994, for example, the well-known three-strikes measure (Prop. 184) was approved by 71% of the voters. After 10 years it became fairly clear that the three-strikes sentencing regime was over inclusive and lead to absurd results like life sentences for stealing socks or a slice of pizza.
When reform-minded voters tried to require the life-eligible “third strike” be a violent offense, politicians and special interest groups spent millions misleading voters by misrepresenting facts to prevent meaningful reforms.
Since then, voters have successfully trimmied back some of the harsher consequences of “tough-on-crime” measures. Reforms include: decriminalized medical marijuana (Prop. 215, 1996); drug treatment instead of prison for minor drug offenses (Prop. 36, 2000).
How it will affect drug possession cases?
None of these reductions apply to offenders with serious prior convictions. Anyone who uses weapons of mass destruction or uses machine-guns on cops or firefighters is ineligible. It will not apply to people with certain registerable sex offense priors, or prior homicides (including attempt, solicitation, life in prison and death-eligible offenses).
Which non-drug related offenses are changed by Prop. 47?
Prosecutors will no longer be able to charge all shoplifting cases as “commercial burglaries.” California Penal Code Section 459 was amended so that it is a misdemeanor when the value of property “taken or intended to be taken” by “larceny while that establishment is open during regular business hours… does not exceed… $950…”
Prop. 47 amended the forgery statutes (Penal Code Sections 470, 471, 472, 473, 475, 476, 484f, and 484i subd. (b) so that if the forgery “relates to a check, bond, bank bill, note, cashier’s check, traveler’s check, or money order, where the value… does not exceed $950…” it will be a misdemeanor unless it involves identity theft under Penal Code Section 530.5.
The statute criminalizing the passing of NSF checks has also been amended. As long as the defendant does not have 3 or more priors for Penal Code Sections 470, 475, or 476 (or analogous out-of-state priors), it is a misdemeanor if “the total amount of all checks, drafts, or orders… does not exceed $950.”