The state of California has one of the strongest sentencing enhancement laws in the country regarding using a firearm to carry out a crime. This law, embodied in Penal Code 12022.53 PC, is commonly referred to as the "10-20-Life" law or the "use a gun and you're done" rule.
In short, if you're convicted of certain felony offenses during which you use a gun, discharge a firearm, or kill or seriously injure someone with a gun, you're eligible for an automatic sentence extension of 10 years, 20 years, or 25 years-to-life imprisonment, respectively.
In other words, this law imposes additional penalties when you commit certain crimes using a gun. It's an "enhancement" to a state prison sentence for certain serious felony offenses when you use a gun to commit the crime. It makes a state prison sentence significantly longer.
In 2017, California lawmakers passed Senate Bill 620 that gave a judge the discretion to dismiss a 10-20-life sentence enhancement "in the interest of justice." Now, it's judicial discretion rather than a mandatory minimum. Penal Code 12022.53 PC says:
- “Anyone committing a felony using a firearm will be punished by an additional term of imprisonment for ten years. The firearm doesn't need to be operable or loaded. Anyone who discharges a firearm will receive an additional 20 years. Anyone who discharges a firearm causing great bodily injury will receive an additional 25 years in state prison.”
Our California criminal defense attorneys will examine this statute in greater detail below.
The 10-20-Life Law Explained
Under PC 12022.53, employing a firearm during the commission of certain felonies makes you automatically eligible for a drastic increase in your sentence. If you use a gun, as opposed to someone else using it, during the crime, the penalty is automatically extended by ten years.
The sentence is automatically extended by 20 years if you fire the gun. And if someone is killed due to the gun being fired, the penalty is automatically extended by 25 years to life. Other details to know regarding the 10-20-Life law are discussed below.
"Use" of a firearm refers to any use of a gun to further the commission of the crime. In other words, you do not have to discharge the weapon or point it at anyone to be "using" the gun. The gun doesn't even have to be loaded.
As long as the firearm is brandished in a way that it is perceived as a threat, you are using it—and doing so will add ten years to your sentence if you're convicted of the crime.
"Discharging" a firearm refers to aiming the gun at someone and pulling the trigger. It doesn't matter whether you hit the person or miss them. It also doesn't matter if the revolver fails to fire. If you aim the weapon at a person and attempt to fire, you have discharged the gun under the law—and doing so will add 20 years to your sentence if convicted.
"Causing great bodily injury or death" encompasses all direct and indirect consequences of firing the weapon. In other words, the victim's injury or death doesn't have to be directly caused by the firearm—the act of firing has to be a significant contributing factor.
For example, if the victim lunges to avoid being shot and dies from hitting his head against a table, firing the gun still causes someone's death. Additionally, it's irrelevant whether or not you intended to hit or kill the victim. As long as the firearm can be attributed to significant bodily injury or death, it will add 25 years to life to your sentence if convicted.
The 10-20-Life enhancement only applies if you used the firearm. In other words, if you were a participant in the felony offense where a gun was used, but you did not personally use a firearm, the sentencing enhancement would not apply.
Enforcing the 10-20-Life enhancement is now at the judge's discretion. When the enhancement was first enacted in 1997, it was mandatory. However, as of 2018, state law now permits judges to waive the enhancement if they believe it serves the interests of justice.
No probation is permitted under the 10-20-Life enhancement. If the crime for which you're convicted typically allows the judge to impose probation instead of prison, that option no longer applies if you use a gun. You will serve prison time if convicted.
Which Felonies Qualify for the 10-20-Life Enhancement?
PC 12022.53 lists numerous felony offenses for which the 10-20-Life sentence enhancement may apply. These include, but are not limited to:
- Murder - Penal Code 187 PC,
- Mayhem – Penal Code 203 or 205 PC,
- Robbery - Penal Code 211 PC,
- Rape - Penal Code 261 or 262 PC,
- Kidnapping - Penal Code 207 PC,
- Carjacking - Penal Code 215 PC,
- Sodomy - Penal Code 286 PC,
- Lewd acts on a child – Penal Code 288 PC,
- Forced oral copulation – Penal Code 288a PC,
- Sexual penetration with a foreign object – Penal Code 289 PC,
- Gang rape - Penal Code 264.1 PC,
- Assault with intent to commit a felony - Penal Code 220 PC
- Assault with a firearm on a peace officer - Penal Code 245(d) PC,
- Assault by a life prisoner - Penal Code 4500 PC,
- Assault by a prisoner - Penal Code 4501 PC,
- Any other felony that is already punishable by death or life imprisonment
Note that except for assault, the 10-20-Life law also applies to any attempt to commit any of these crimes, whether or not you were successful. As noted, the gun does not have to be loaded or operable to be convicted under this law, and you do not need to have fired the gun.
What Are the Common Defenses For This Law?
Because the penalty enhancements of this law are so severe, a good defense attorney will make it a top priority to try and keep the enhancement from coming into play. Some common defenses include:
- The underlying felony does not qualify for the 10-20-Life enhancement. This can be an effective defense, especially if your attorney can get the felony downgraded to a misdemeanor.
- You did not personally use a gun during the commission of the crime. In other words, you may or may not have been a participant, but you weren't using a gun.
- You were acting in self-defense or defense of others. If your attorney can show that you reasonably believed that you or someone else was in imminent danger of being seriously hurt or killed and that using a gun was the only way to prevent that from happening, then the 10-20-Life law will not apply.
The prosecutor must be able to prove all the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
As noted above, perhaps we can argue that you didn't personally use a gun while committing a crime or didn't commit the underlying felony offense that subjected you to the "10-20-life" sentencing enhancement.
Maybe we can show you were defending yourself from imminent great bodily harm, and you only used the amount of force required to protect yourself.
Perhaps we can negotiate with the prosecution for reduced charges or a case dismissal. If you or a family member was charged with the felony crime of using a gun, you need to contact our defense team for a case review which can increase your chances of a favorable outcome.
Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles, California and we provide legal representation across the state. Contact us for a case review via phone or use the contact form.