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After pleading guilty 12 years ago in Arizona to assaulting his wife with a handgun, James Leonard Laino got his conviction dismissed by completing a domestic violence diversion program. He thought that gave him a clean slate. But on Thursday, the California Supreme Court ruled that Laino’s original guilty plea in the Arizona case constituted a conviction under California’s Three Strikes law, subjecting him to a possibly longer sentence for elder abuse allegedly committed in San Diego County four years ago. The unanimous ruling clarifies which out-of-state convictions count as prior strikes in California, and, according to Laino’s defense lawyer, undermines state programs aimed at diverting criminal defendants into treatment rather than jail. “This really should cause any state that has a diversion program some concern, because what it means is that the citizens of that state are only entitled to the benefit within that state’s borders,” San Diego Deputy Public Defender Matthew Braner said Thursday. “Citizens who enter into diversion do so with the belief that their case will go away, not that another state could revive it.” Much of the 24-page ruling was devoted to discussion about whether the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution precluded a state from deciding that a guilty plea in another state constitutes a conviction, even if the case is later dismissed. The Supreme Court decided that it didn’t. “Given a state’s legitimate interest in enforcing its own sentencing procedures and policies for repeat offenders who commit crimes within the state,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote, “the full faith and credit clause does not bar a state from determining, under its own laws, whether an out-of-state guilty plea constitutes a �conviction’ for purposes of a habitual criminal statute.” An Arizona judge placed Laino on probation for aggravated assault on his wife in 1992 but dismissed the case three years later after the defendant completed a therapy program. His past problems came up again in 2000 when San Diego authorities charged him with grand theft of an elder for allegedly using his 95-year-old grandmother’s Wells Fargo bank card to withdraw more than $5,300 over 29 days. California prosecutors revived the Arizona assault as a strike against Laino, but his lawyers argued that the dismissed case couldn’t count against him. The Supreme Court said the guilty plea was the pertinent consideration. “No matter what lenience Arizona may or may not bestow upon its recidivist criminals who have committed domestic violence felonies,” Justice Moreno wrote, “once we are satisfied that a defendant’s factual guilt was established in the foreign state, and once we are satisfied that such conviction constitutes a strike under our Three Strikes law, that prior crime will count here.” San Diego Deputy District Attorney Josephine Kiernan, who argued the case, said the ruling would have major impact. “It really defines what a prior conviction is and when it occurs for the purpose of the strike laws,” she said. “This is the first time the Supreme Court has directly decided that issue.” Kiernan also said the ruling could apply to sentence enhancement statutes for recidivist offenders under other laws, such as those governing serious offenders and prison priors. The ruling remands the case back to the trial court for sentencing, but what happens there isn’t clear. According to Kiernan and Braner, Laino is currently in prison after pleading guilty to a second crime dealing with elder abuse. “What I expect,” Kiernan said, “is we’ll take a look at whether we want to have another trial on the prior conviction.” The ruling is People v. Laino, 04 C.D.O.S. 3062.

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