Is There a “Three Strikes Law” in SC?
“Three strikes laws” in some states have gotten a lot of attention over the years for their often harsh, nonsensical results – is there a three strikes law in SC also?
SC’s life without parole (LWOP) law is our version of the three strikes law, although it also provides for life without parole after just two convictions if they are classified as “most serious.”
The three strikes law in SC requires that a person must be convicted of two “most serious” offenses or three “serious” offenses before the life without parole law applies.
But, there are some minor offenses that qualify under SC’s three strikes law, like breach of trust and obtaining goods by false pretenses, that are similar to a minor shoplifting offense. What other type of convictions could result in a life sentence without the possibility of parole?
Two Strikes Law or Three Strikes Law in SC – Most Serious and Serious Offenses
SC’s three strikes law, or life without parole (LWOP) statute, is found at SC Code Section 17-25-45.
It is divided into two sections – in some cases, the state can seek life without parole for a second conviction of what is classified as a “most serious” offense. In other cases, the state can seek life without parole after a third conviction of what is classified as a “serious” offense.
Two Strikes in SC – Most Serious Offenses
Under 17-25-45 (A), if a person is charged with a “most serious” offense in SC, and they have one or more prior convictions for “most serious” offenses or two or more prior convictions for “serious” offenses, they can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
17-25-45 (C)(1) lists the “most serious” offenses, which include:
- Attempted murder;
- Voluntary manslaughter;
- Homicide by child abuse or aiding and abetting homicide by child abuse;
- Lynching first degree;
- Assault and battery by mob first degree;
- Criminal sexual conduct (CSC) first or second degree;
- CSC with a minor (with some exceptions);
- Assault with intent to commit CSC first or second degree;
- Kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping;
- Human trafficking;
- Arson first degree;
- Burglary first degree;
- Armed robbery and attempted armed robbery;
- Use of an explosive incendiary device where death results;
- Taking of a hostage by an inmate;
- Gathering information for or giving certain information to an enemy during wartime;
- Abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult resulting in death;
- Removing or damaging airport equipment where death results;
- Interfering with traffic control devices when death results;
- Obstruction of a railroad where death results; and
- Accessory or attempt for any charges listed as a “most serious” offense.
Three Strikes – Serious Offenses
Under 17-25-45 (B), if a person is charged with a “serious” offense, and they have two or more prior convictions for “serious” offenses or “most serious” offenses, they can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
17-25-45 (C)(2) lists “serious” offenses, which include:
- Any offense that carries a potential sentence of 30 years or more and is not listed above as a “most serious” offense;
- Lynching second degree;
- Assault and battery by a mob second degree;
- Engaging a child for sexual performance;
- Accepting a bribe by an officer;
- Accepting a bribe for purposes of gaining public office;
- Arson second degree;
- Burglary second degree;
- Theft using an ATM;
- Embezzlement of public funds;
- Breach of trust with fraudulent intent;
- Obtaining signature or goods by false pretenses;
- Domestic violence first degree or domestic violence high and aggravated;
- Any drug trafficking offense;
- Insurance fraud;
- Distribution, sale, manufacture, or possession with intent to distribute drugs within proximity of a school;
- Felony DUI resulting in death;
- Abuse of a vulnerable adult resulting in great bodily injury; and
- Accessory before the fact or attempt to commit any of the above offenses.
Breach of Trust and Obtaining Goods by False Pretenses, Really?
The three strikes law in SC allows a prosecutor to seek a life sentence without the possibility of parole if a person has two or more prior convictions for minor property crimes – breach of trust with fraudulent intent or obtaining goods by false pretenses.
Each of these SC property crimes is “graduated,” meaning that the penalty increases based on the dollar value of the property in question. SC’s three strikes law does not distinguish between the 30-day breach of trust or the ten-year breach of trust.
This means that a person in SC could have two prior convictions for breach of trust < $2000 (taking money from a cash register at McDonald’s, for example, or a contractor taking money from a homeowner but not completing the promised work), each punishable by a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, and a third conviction could trigger a life sentence without the possibility of parole…
Is that really what the legislature intended? Although I have never seen a person in SC sentenced to life without parole for a 30-day offense like breach of trust, you better believe that some prosecutor somewhere will try it if it’s possible.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail…
What if the Prior Convictions are from Out of State?
Any conviction from another state or in federal court that would be classified as “serious” or “most serious” under the two strike or three strike law in SC qualifies.
Does the State Have to Give Notice that They are Seeking LWOP?
Although SC’s three strikes law says that the court “must” sentence the person to life without parole if they qualify, that’s not exactly true.
17-25-45 (H) requires the prosecutor to give written notice of their intent to seek life without parole to the defendant and the defendant’s attorney no less than ten days before trial. In practice, this means that:
- Prosecutors have discretion to not seek life without parole when they think it is not appropriate;
- If the prosecutor calls a case for trial without giving the required written notice, they cannot ask the court to sentence the defendant to life without parole if they are found guilty; and
- In most cases, a defendant will not get sentenced to life without parole when they plead guilty – part of the plea negotiations will almost always be an agreement not to seek LWOP.
What Does Life Without Parole in SC Mean?
If a person is sentenced to life without parole under the two strike or three strike law in SC, they are not eligible for:
- Any type of early release or discharge;
- Work release (with some exceptions);
- Early release to reduce prison crowding;
- Earned work credits;
- Education credits; or
- Good conduct credits.
When Does Life Without Parole in SC Not Mean Life Without Parole?
A person who was sentenced to life without parole under the two strikes or three strikes law in SC can be paroled if 1) the Department of Corrections asks for the inmate to be paroled, 2) the Department of Probation, Pardon, and Parole Services finds that they are no longer a threat to society because of their age or health conditions; and:
- They have served at least 30 years and they are at least 65 years old; or
- They have served at least 20 years and they are at least 70 years old; or
- They have a terminal illness with a life expectancy of a year or less; or
- In the “most extraordinary circumstances.”
Charleston, SC Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you are charged with a crime that qualifies under the two strikes or three strikes law in SC, you may be facing a possible sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney Grant B. Smaldone will help you to avoid an LWOP sentence whenever possible through investigating your case, negotiating with your prosecutor, or taking your case to trial.
Call now at (843) 808-2100 or use our contact form to set up a free consultation to find out how we can help.