Appeals court tosses life sentence for $15 theft

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana appeals court has tossed out the life sentence for a man convicted of grabbing $15 from a parked car.

Walter Johnson, 38, had three prior convictions when he was convicted for snatching the money from an SUV that turned out to be a “bait-vehicle” police were using to catch burglars. He was sentenced last year under a habitual offender statute mandating a life sentence for fourth-offenders.

“Thus, the sentence imposed on Mr. Johnson is ‘legal’ in the sense that it falls within the statutory range,” Judge Paul Bonin said in the opinion for a three-judge panel of the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.

“Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive.”

The appeals court ordered a New Orleans judge to order a pre-sentence investigation, hold a new hearing and come up with a reduced sentence.

Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano dissented, arguing that the sentence should not be vacated until after a hearing is held to determine whether Johnson’s case is truly unconstitutionally excessive.

All three judges — Bonin, Lobrano and Sandra Cabrina Jenkins — agreed to uphold Walters’ conviction. They rejected Johnson’s argument that he was entrapped when he snatched the cash through the open window of a car police were using to snare burglars.

As for the sentence, Bonin noted that none of Johnson’s three previous convictions — for burglary, possession of heroin and distribution of cocaine — were for violent crimes. “We cannot condone a sentence which condemns Mr. Johnson to a life — and inevitable death — within prison walls, in light of his non-violent criminal history and the extraordinarily minor crime in this case.”

Bonin’s opinion noted language in the Louisiana Constitution prohibiting “any law that subjects an individual to “cruel, excessive, or unusual punishment.”

The opinion did not strike down the habitual offender law. But it said a sentence under the law can sometimes be unconstitutionally excessive.

“The amount in this case is relevant — fifteen dollars is extraordinary in its triviality,” Bonin wrote.