Santos Reyes (prisoner)

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Santos Reyes is a prisoner at Folsom Prison in the state of California who became a focal point of an effort to overturn the state's three strikes law.[1][2][3] The case has attracted widespread media attention, including coverage in the Los Angeles Times,[4] the San Francisco Chronicle,[5] Reuters,[6] the Pasadena Weekly,[7] and elsewhere.[3][8][9] It has been hailed as a particularly egregious example of how California's three strikes law has led to the "incarceration of thousands of victims indicted on relatively minor charges."[3][8]

Arrest and conviction[edit]

In 1997 Reyes filled out an application for a driver's license under the name of his cousin, Miguel Soto. Reports differ as to whether the application was in Spanish or English, and whether the application stated that information was being provided under penalty of perjury.[10] Upon being suspected for using a crib sheet to cheat on the test by DMV staff member Debra Alexander, Alexander confiscated the exam from Reyes and reported Reyes, who had left the DMV building, to the California Highway Patrol. After submitting to a pat down and being handcuffed, Reyes voluntarily admitted that he had attempted to take the test for Soto. Prior to trial, Reyes was offered a deal of four years imprisonment in exchange for a guilty plea to the charge of perjury, but he rejected the plea deal and requested a jury trial. He was convicted on March 5, 1998 of perjury. Reyes qualified for a Three Strikes enhancement because of two prior convictions: one for residential burglary as a juvenile in 1981, and a second for armed robbery in 1987. On April 2, 1998, the trial court sentenced Reyes to an indeterminate term of 26 years to life.[10]


Circuit Judge Richard C. Tallman argued that the characterization of Reyes as a victim of excessive punishment for cheating on a driver's license exam was incorrect. Tallman pointed out that Reyes was convicted for knowingly filing a false document under oath.[10] Tallman also argued that supporters of Reyes had understated his criminality. Tallman described Reyes as "a career criminal" who had been convicted of committing six crimes in a 16-year period, including battery, armed robbery, being under the influence of a controlled substance and driving while under the influence, and who had spent six years in prison for various offenses prior to his sentencing under the three strikes law.[10]

Supporters of Reyes such as San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzales argued that the sentence was an "egregious example of injustice" because his most recent crime amounted to little more than "cheating on a driver's license test."[3][11] Reyes has been described as "something of a modern-day Jean Valjean."[12] Judge Harry Pregerson pointed out that "Signing someone else's name on a driver's license application is specifically proscribed by the California legislature as a misdemeanor." [10] Pregerson argued that neither of the previous convictions met the standard intended by the Three Strikes law, since the first strike (burglary) involved nonviolent misbehavior as a juvenile and the second strike (robbery) did not involve harm to a person.[10] Moreover, over eleven years had elapsed since the second strike, which was committed by Reyes at age 23.[13]

Campaign to free Santos Reyes[edit]

California Green Party gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo founded the Free Santos Reyes Committee to campaign for Reyes's release.[7] The Latino activist organization National Latino Congreso passed a resolution calling on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to pardon Reyes.[7][14]

Folsom state prison in 2007.

Chronology of appeals[edit]

In December 2003, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco upheld the 1998 sentencing of Santo Reyes. In a 2-1 ruling the court rejected the argument that Reyes's conviction violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment." The Appeals Court ruling came on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in March 2003 upholding the sentence of 50 years to life for a man with two prior convictions found guilty of shoplifting videotapes. In a dissent, Judge Harry Pregerson noted that the reason Reyes had received the third-strike sentence was that he had chosen to go to trial rather than accept a plea bargain for a lesser offense, which would have carried a four-year sentence. Pregerson said, "I believe that punishing a person for exercising his or her constitutional rights clearly violates due process."[5]

In 2005, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's denial of Reyes' petition challenging his sentence and remanded the case to district court for further proceedings.[15]

On September 13, 2006, the Free Santos Reyes Committee held a rally and vigil in front of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.[2] Inside the courtroom, Reyes attempted to persuade the federal magistrate that he had not wielded a knife during a 1986 robbery that provided the second of his three "strikes." The issue of whether a knife was used in the robbery or simply carried by Reyes on his person was a crucial issue, since none of Reyes's other convictions involved violence.[16]


  1. ^ "FACTS: Top 150 Unjust 3-Strike Stories," Archived 2009-01-04 at the Wayback Machine. Families to Amend California's 3-Strikes, Google cache accessed December 9, 2010
  2. ^ a b "Campaign to Free Santos Reyes," Interview with Peter Camejo, Uprising Radio, September 12, 2006
  3. ^ a b c d Erin Yoshioka (May 6, 2005). "A "three-strikes" injustice: Why is Santos Reyes facing 26 years to life in prison?". Socialist Worker. Retrieved 2010-12-09. SANTOS REYES could spend the rest of his life in a California prison. His crime? He took the written portion of a driver's license test for his cousin, to help him qualify for a license. For this, he was charged under California's "three-strikes" law, which imposes a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence on any person convicted of a third felony. 
  4. ^ Allen Jones (June 12, 2008). "Let nonviolent prisoners out: Building beds for the mentally ill is a fine goal, but why not reduce overcrowding first?". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 4, 2010. Santos Reyes, George Anderson, Linda Susan Teague, Gary Ewing and Leandro Andrade are serving a total of 176 years, and the most serious criminal among them is Ewing. He stole three golf clubs. 
  5. ^ a b Bob Egelko (December 30, 2003). "26 to life for taking an exam". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 9, 2010. Man took cousin's drive test - strike 3 
  6. ^ "Man facing 26 years for lying wins hearing," Reuters, March 5, 2005
  7. ^ a b c Andre Coleman (February 2, 2006). "Three strikes may be out". Pasadena Weekly. For instance, Santos Reyes of El Monte is now doing 25 years to life for lying on the written portion of a driver's license test. 
  8. ^ a b Horace Miskel (July 22, 2008). "Raising Hell for Prison Reform: San Francisco Man Attempts to Reform Prison System in California". Regal Magazine. Retrieved December 9, 2010. Santos Reyes is currently serving 26 years to life for forging a DMV test. 
  9. ^ "Wanted! Black leaders for California prisoner release court order". BayView: National Black Newspaper. November 4, 2010. Retrieved December 4, 2010. If inmate Santos Reyes can stay in prison for a minimum of 26 years for cheating on a driving application ... 
  10. ^ a b c d e f "No. 00-57130. - REYES v. BROWN - US 9th Circuit" (PDF). United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 14, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2011. 
  11. ^ matt gonzalez (May 6, 2005). "Free Santos Reyes!". Socialist Worker. Retrieved December 9, 2010. SANTOS REYES could spend the rest of his life in a California prison. His crime? He took the written portion of a driver's license test for his cousin, to help him qualify for a license. For this, he was charged under California's "three-strikes" law, which imposes a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence on any person convicted of a third felony. 
  12. ^ Brian Leubitz (Sep 14, 2006). "3 Strikes: It's Back in the News, and Still as Ridiculous as Ever". calitics. Retrieved 2010-12-09. The story of Santos Reyes is a bizarre one. Reyes was thrown into prison under the 3 Strikes for CHEATING ON A DMV TEST. Yes, I meant to Yell that. That, my friends, is a travesty of justice of the worst kind. The case is currently being reviewed by the courts as to whether this sentence violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition of Cruel and Unusual Punishment. 
  13. ^ "3 Strikes Stories: 126 Santos Reyes," FACTS (Families to Amend California's Three Strikes, accessed November 2011
  14. ^ "Free Santos Reyes Resolution," Resolution 2.8, National Latino Congreso, September 5, 2006
  15. ^ Santos L. Reyes v. Jill Brown, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, No. 00-57130, D.C. No. CV-00-00608-VAP, Filed March 4, 2005
  16. ^ James Sterngold, "Robber testifies in 1986 case, hoping to invalidate 3rd strike," San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 2006